Heaven Knows What starts off with desperation and ferocious feeling. Arielle Holmes (playing a version of herself named Harley, an allusion to Harley Quinn) is in a library begging a greasy-haired boy (Caleb Landry Jones) to give her the key to his forgiveness. He is unmovable, and his silent opaqueness pushes her further to seek any desperate action that may somehow budge his heart. Her eyes are sharp with a terrible kind of love.

You can smell Harley and Iyla in the library; you can feel their skittering hungry presence. Drug addiction, life on the streets, being young and reckless, thinking you’re in love: all of this demands a life constantly in the present. Living in the moment is a bit of advice oft tossed around, and it’s often good advice for the comfortable and anxious, but these kids really are living in the moment, and it’s hell. When you are in the moment so much that you can’t see past it, it can be exciting, but the moment can be its own prison. That’s what this film so perfectly captures: the evil tug of a constant need, of split-seconds decisions that lead to bleeding arms and betrayals. Arielle Holmes, who was plucked out of this street life by co-director Josh Safdie and challenged to tell her story, says making the film changed her life in many ways, including how she experiences time. “Time has changed since then,” Holmes told the L.A. Times. “I realize now that it exists. Not everything has to happen instantly.”

The original story of Heaven Knows What is its own myth, a tale that has to be told when you talk about this movie. Like all good myths, it slightly changes each time, details shift. My version goes like this:

About two years ago Arielle was 19-years-old and had been living on the streets for three years when Josh Safdie saw her in Diamond District in NYC. He was street-casting for a project he and his brother Ben were working on called Uncut Gems, and could tell from just a look at her that she’d be great on screen.

He approached her and learned during subsequent talks that she was a homeless heroin addict. She had been in the Diamond District because she was working as an unpaid apprentice, but she paid for her habit by working at a club as a dominatrix named Siouxsie. She slept in doorways, and didn’t have steady access to a computer, but it soon became obvious to the filmmakers that the story she had to tell was maybe better than the one they were working on. It was more immediate, more hot-blooded because it was happening right now to this girl. It’s one thing to ask anyone to write about their lives and: 1. have them actually do it, 2. if they do it, find it to actually be good.

“I was kind of saying [to a friend], ‘Why did this even happen to me? It was just so random. Why did I get picked out of everyone else for this to happen to?’” she has wondered about the surreal circumstance of her Cinderella-like transformation. “He was like, ‘But you know what? It wasn’t just luck. Yeah, you had the luck of meeting the right people, but it was you that actually took the chance and put the work and the effort and the time into it and made everything happen.’ He was basically saying that not everyone would do that or could do it. For me, it wasn’t even about if I could or would. There wasn’t anything else to do.” In a way, Josh Safdie was like a fairy godmother to her, but she had to step up and be her own fairy godmother as well. What happened to Arielle was part luck, but luck never takes anyone all the way. If you want anything at all, you have to put in the work.

Although many people with several different electronic devices in front of them find it difficult to start something, Arielle set at the project with a fierce commitment, writing her story in the Apple Store and wherever else she could snag an electronic device for a bit. She’d religiously send pages to Josh, and he and the other two screenwriters would look for their film in the engaging prose. “I think it was the way she described people, the names and the details, all of that was something new, a different perspective on this life,” he told NewsOK. “It was a life that I didn’t know about, and it was just interesting to dive into.”

They were most captivated by her relationship with Ilya Leontyev, her longtime boyfriend who was capable of atrocious things. They wanted to focus on the degenerating present of their relationship rather than setting it up with scenes from their romanticized past. Then, all of a sudden, Arielle flaked on them. Josh had gotten her a job in a music video, and she didn’t show up. Her phone went dead. She had simply vanished.

She resurfaced, though, and let them know that she had landed in Bellevue after Ilya goaded her to suicide attempt. That’s when the story really began to take shape, the defining moment to hang the rest of the details.

Caleb Landry Jones, a professional actor, was cast as Ilya Leontyev, and his pale, emotionally distant prettiness haunts the film. While Arielle is right here with us, the Ilya character is steely and withdrawn, like an aggressive ghost. Most of the other actors in the film, though, are kids from the streets mostly playing themselves. Caleb was set up by his people in a nice hotel but decided immediately to hang out with the rest of the actors. He spent his first night in NYC at an internet cafe watching the real Ilya sleep.

Ilya himself was supposed to have a small part in the film but proved too unreliable and volatile. He still hung around the set, though, sometimes causing quite a bit of trouble. He even attended the New York Film Festival US premiere of the film in October 2014. This April (2015) he was found dead of an overdose in the Strawberry Fields area of Central Park, eerily mimicking his demise in the film. (The film shows Ilya burning to death, a reference to a real fire that burned his hands when he and Arielle were living in New Jersey.)

The real Ilya Leontyev at the premiere:

As for playing herself, (or, more accurately, a hyper-realized version of herself,) Arielle has said she felt like it was a dream. “I’m somebody else now, I’m 100 light years away. So I had to re-create the emotion within myself. So even though it was something that already happened, it was something new,” she says about the experience. She was on methadone during filming, so that may have contributed to her dreamy feeling and the distance from herself while shooting. After filming ended the filmmakers sent Arielle to a rehab facility in Florida, and she’s been clean ever since.

She’s now signed to an agent and has several films in the works including American Honey, a role alongside Shia LaBeouf. Arielle’s memoir, Mad Love in New York City, is still set to come out in 2016.


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  • EliteMonsterHunter

    I just watched the film Heaven Knows What on Netflix and enjoyed so much I had to watch it twice. When I first watched the film I was immediately reminded of The Panic in Needle Park, the Pacino/Winn film from 1971 about heroin addicts in NYC. But Heaven Knows What grabbed me a bit more because Arielle was eerily similar to a friend and former neighbor who is also a heroin addict, Amy. Even more frightening in the similarities is that Amy has a boyfriend she says she’s in love with who is destructive and abusive like Ilya. The similarities between the film and Amy’s story, or what I know of it, freaked me out more than once. Even before I read this article the realism of the behaviors struck me and made me think “the cast are either addicts or former addicts because certain mannerisms are portrayed too real to be acted.” I’ve sat with Amy many nights as she was going through it or simply didn’t want to be alone fighting the demons of time.

    My only issue with the film is the ending. Very anti-climatic with no resolution at all except IIya dies in the fire. I was hoping for something a bit more considering how the film progresses. Other than that, great film. I’m curious to see what the creators do next and I wish Arielle Holmes the best. I know how hard staying clean can be witnessing that battle as other friends have gone through it (Amy has no aspirations to get clean at this point).

    • Thanks for sharing. My heart goes out to you and your friend.

    • WannaPretty

      I’m glad someone else feels the same way. I saw this story and was hit by how much it reminded me of my best friend. She met her boyfriend through me, and he was a drug dealer and she was completely in love with him. They fought all the time, she cheated on him and admitted it, and he didn’t forgive her. Eventually he did but this was a continuous cycle. In the middle of the school year she was kicked out of her house and she went to live with him (secretly, without his parents knowing) and after he was shot in the chest she had to live in a shelter downtown. I came to meet her “friends” in the city one day, I live in the suburbs so we only go out there when we need something but the crew was exactly like they were in the movie. She came in after curfew one day so after that she was basically hopping couches for a while. One day towards the end of the school year she didn’t have enough enough money get back home after school and I never saw her again. Now I’m leaving this city to go to university but it scares me to know she could still be in Harley’s situation while I’m away. It hit me in the middle of the film that these people weren’t actors, they lived this situation. Everything about them was so accurate from their way of speaking, to the ridiculous situations, to their almost run down looks. That was why I had to look up the actors afterward.