Mad Love in the City: The Safdies’ Heaven Knows What

share this article

Clara Miranda Scherffig is an Italian writer based in Berlin. Find out more about her work at

share this article
share this article
heaven knows what
Image credit: RADiUS-TWC

During a location scout in New York’s Diamond District, filmmaker Josh Safdie noticed 19-year-old Arielle Holmes in the subway and was struck by her “gravitational pull.”[i] He would go on to cast Holmes, who at the time was homeless and addicted to heroin, as the lead in Heaven Knows What (2014), the third feature-length film directed by Safdie and his brother Benny. In fact, Safdie initially approached Holmes with a different acting opportunity in mind, but as they got to know each other he became increasingly fascinated by the stories she shared about her life on the street. When Holmes contacted him after getting out of the hospital following a suicide attempt, Safdie encouraged her to write down her experiences and offered to pay her by the page. She quickly produced a 150-page manuscript called Mad Love in New York City, and the descriptions of her harrowing relationship with black metal fan Ilya, the street kids she hung out with and the daily rhythms of addiction eventually formed the basis of the screenplay for Heaven Knows What.

The honesty of Holmes’ writing carried over into an exceptionally raw and believable performance as Harley, her onscreen alter-ego. Safdie has noted that Holmes “exists in hours,”[ii] and possibly this state of mind allowed her to pull herself away from her life enough to reenact it on camera. The combination of a woman-centered drug abuse narrative based on true events with an ultra-realistic mise-en-scène situates Heaven Knows What within a filmic tradition inaugurated by Joan Didion’s screenplay for The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and carried forward by Christiane F.’s story in We Children from Bahnhof Zoo (1981). Thematically, these films are also linked by their focus on the overlap between the experience of addiction and that of first love. Heaven Knows What infuses Harley’s quest for drugs with as much fervour and intensity as her romantic relationship.

As the link between the creators of the film and its subject matter, Holmes participated in many aspects of the production of Heaven Knows What, including casting and location scouting—she understood the places and the people, as well as the pace of the story. Aside from Caleb Landry Jones (the professional actor cast in the role of Ilya), all the other characters were played by people who, like Holmes, had never acted professionally but had street-life experience. Despite this, the Safdies maintain that it doesn’t feel accurate to refer to these performers as non-actors: “[‘Non-actors’ implies] they’re not actors, when really, this is just their first time acting.”[iii] Moreover, the ability to perform is a crucial asset when it comes to surviving on the streets: spanging (panhandling), shoplifting and scoring drugs all require the ability to put on a show.

In casting actual drug users and soliciting their input, the Safdies were able create a narrative that conveys the attractions of drug use and street life—since getting sober, Holmes has spoken about missing “the adventure” of living on the street[iv]—without romanticizing addiction and homelessness. Harley seeks diversion by refusing the repetition of a conventional routine, only to end up repeating the same actions over and over. At the same time, street life requires great creativity and the ability to invent a dramatic narrative with few resources, qualities that could also describe the Safdies’ approach to storytelling: The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008), Daddy Longlegs (2009) and The Black Balloon (2008) all feature plots based on their protagonists’ routines and idiosyncrasies, and take inspiration from real urban settings. Holmes has compared playing herself to “creating something new,”[v] revealing both her own ability to find novelty under any circumstances and storytelling’s capacity to illuminate the original within familiar narratives.

heaven knows what
Image credit: RADiUS-TWC

Holmes’ tale isn’t alone in creatively elaborating on well-known storytelling patterns—Joan Didion pitched The Panic in Needle Park as “Romeo and Juliet on junk.”[vi] Along with her husband, John Dunne, Didion had optioned the film rights to the novel of the same name by James Mills, which in turn was inspired by a LIFE magazine reportage Mills had written in 1965. Similar to Holmes’ foray into memoir-writing, The Panic in Needle Park represented Didion’s first attempt at scriptwriting; she and Dunne spent a few weeks at the Alamac Hotel in New York researching the daily life of the hustlers and addicts who roamed around Broadway and 72nd, during which time she wrote the initial treatment. Dunne collaborated on the screenplay, but Didion had the last word on the final draft. Produced by Didion’s brother-in-law Dominick Dunne and directed by Jerry Schatzberg, the film was a hit, featuring a spectacular performance by Al Pacino in his first lead role.

The Panic in Needle Park begins with an abortion, a subject Didion often explored in her writing. In the first minutes of the film we see a girl, Helen, looking sick on a busy subway train (Kitty Winn won best female lead at Cannes for her performance, despite having almost no prior onscreen experience—she was cast after Dominick Dunne noticed her in a play). Despite her nausea, Helen manages to get to her boyfriend’s’ art studio and lies down to rest until a dealer stops by (Bobby, played by Pacino). As Bobby waits for the boyfriend to get ready, he chats with Helen and tenderly tucks her in. In the following scene, she’s alone in a hospital and the audience learns she’s been bleeding profusely. Bobby visits her during the recovery, and she’s released a few days later. Toward the beginning of Heaven Knows What, Harley is also shown leaving a hospital after being discharged from a psychiatric ward, following a gorily depicted suicide attempt triggered by a fight with Ilya. Although The Panic in Needle Park spares the audience from graphic images of Helen’s injuries, the idea of painful, blood-pouring wounds is vividly conveyed. In both films, the men who share responsibility for their partners’ suffering and hospitalizations are relegated to the background of these events, allowing the young women to come across as independent figures rather than victims.

The hospital exit scenes mark a caesura between past and present. The here and now is all that the characters seem to engage with—we don’t have much information about their pasts, and they don’t express any concrete concerns for the future. Both films eschew conventional chronology or linearity. In The Panic in Needle Park, this is achieved through documentary-style observational framing and seemingly improvised camerawork during violent scenes. By using safari lenses to shoot from long distances, the Safdie brothers avoid repeating this faux-documentary effect: alternating claustrophobic close-ups with extensive outdoor pans, Heaven Knows What distorts a sense of time and direction, mirroring the viciously cyclical experiences of its characters. Perhaps due to its journalistic origins, the 1971 film conveys more of a day-in-the-life atmosphere, whereas, thanks to Sean Price Williams’s haptic-expressionist photography and Isao Tomita’s acid covers of classical music, Heaven Knows What has the quality of a psychedelic nightmare.

heaven knows what
Image credit: RADiUS-TWC

Aside from their respective stylistic choices, the tragically romantic love story is the primary narrative element that condenses the perception of time in both movies. Harley and Ilya may resemble a stoned duo in the tradition of Cassavetes’ 1971 Minnie & Moskowitz more than the Shakespearean couple referenced by Didion, yet both narratives follow the heedless dedication of a young woman to her male lover, ready to prove her love through dangerous actions: Harley cuts her veins to win back Ilya’s trust, while Helen injects heroin for the first time during one of Bobby’s most intense trips.

No feeling can eclipse a first love and no high ever matches a first high, yet Harley and Helen try in vain to recreate both situations. The 1981 German film Christiane F. (We Children of Bahnhof Zoo), a crude recollection of the West Berlin drug scene in the late ’70s, captures a similar dilemma. Journalist Horst Rieck recorded a series of interviews with Christiane Felscherinow, a teenager addicted to heroin he’d met while researching the crime and drug scene in Moabit (an area in north-western Berlin), and in 1978 Stern magazine published an extensive first-person narration of Christiane’s first 16 years based on these recordings, which formed the basis for the film’s screenplay. Directed by Uli Edel, Christiane F. was released in 1981 and introduced Natja Brunckhorst in the role of Christiane. Unlike Panic and Heaven, Christiane F. doesn’t flirt with circularity; it moves linearly through several years, using conventional methods to depict themes that were shocking for the era. At 13, Christiane sniffs heroin for the first time after having spotted the boy she likes, Detlef, with another girl at a David Bowie concert; hours later, Detlef scolds her for experimenting with the drug before adding, “Cool, right?” and kissing her. From then on, the two are inseparable.

Despite their differences, all three films seem to linger on the same question: are narratives of women’s addiction only relatable when juxtaposed with love stories? While the world of drug abuse might not resonate with every viewer, the protagonists’ longing for love and companionship is a universal impulse. Heaven Knows What’s nonjudgmental portrayal of both its central couple and street life is particularly impressive, striking a precise balance between immersion in, and distance from, its subject matter. Bridging the extremes of love and self-destruction is Harley/Holmes’ incredibly natural, yet poignant, performance. After she and Ilya reconcile, on a wild impulse Ilya hurls Harley’s ringing cellphone into the sky, where it transforms into fireworks—a brief, fantastical explosion (from the stuffed animated bear in The Pleasure of Being Robbed to the giant mosquito of Daddy Longlegs, the Safdie brothers aren’t averse to mixing realism with the fantastic). As the cellphone breaks into thousands of sparks, Ilya points it out and shouts: “That’s funny! That’s fun.” For one instant, the audience is allowed to see reality through their eyes, a reality where love—along with drugs—functions as a sort of magical link to understanding and surviving in the world.

Bridging the extremes of love and self-destruction is Harley/Holmes’ incredibly natural, yet poignant, performance.

In addition to exploring the intersection of drug use and romantic fantasies, Heaven Knows What, The Panic in Needle Park and Christiane F. investigate drug use and addiction as an accelerated entrance to adult life—a propelled coming-of-age. The desire to get away from a troubled situation, prove oneself in the world, belong to a group and find a soulmate to share life’s burdens—in a sense, these all represent a twisted craving for maturity. Likely the women’s voices that shaped these narratives have something to do with this interpretation of addiction; their stories avoid glorifying the recreational aspect of drug use (on the contrary, each girl’s relationship with addiction exposes her to important existential crises, and thus opportunities for growth, that she wouldn’t have otherwise experienced), and their conceptions of home, family and romantic relationships are neither conservative nor conventional. Helen, Christiane and Harley seek a second chance in their emotional lives—the opportunity to rebound from domestic distress—and despite tragic odds, they remain loyal to their partners. Their free will determines their place in the world, and for this reason, their choices can be read as empowering.

In The Panic in Needle Park and Christiane F., such emancipation is merely hinted at, whereas Heaven Knows What‘s protagonist is able to tell and perform her own story and therefore, most importantly, to change it. During filming, Holmes was off heroin but undergoing methadone treatment. She is sober now. Interviewed about her rehab experience, she disagreed with doctors’ understanding of addiction as a chronic disease that haunts former addicts for the rest of their lives: “I believe it’s not a disease, it’s a learning disorder.”[vii] Holmes’ position on addiction supports a theory of drugs as an educational method that, though “disorderly,” creates the circumstances for new experiences and, consequently, ways of surviving. It follows that making and watching the film provided Holmes with a lot of insight into herself. Perhaps more effectively than any conventional therapy, the movie offered a bridge between her past and current situations, allowing her to translate individual episodes into her personal narrative arc. Like its fireworks scene, Heaven Knows What supplied the magical link between experience and understanding.


[i] Natalia Guevara, “Discovery: Arielle Holmes,” Interview Magazine, October 6, 2014.
[ii] Amy Larocca, “The Star on the Sidewalk,” Vulture, May 21, 2015.
[iii] Ryan Lattanzio, “How the Safdies Made Verité Drug Drama ‘Heaven Knows What’ with a Real-Life Ex-Junkie,” IndieWire, May 27, 2015.
[iv] Larocca, “The Star on the Sidewalk.”
[v] Guevara, “Discovery: Arielle Holmes.”
[vi] Tracy Daugherty, The Last Love Story: A Biography of Joan Didion, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015, p. 267.
[vii] Larocca, “The Star on the Sidewalk.”

other articles in this issue

the cléo reader: 2013-2019

like what you're reading?

Make a one-time donation!

Thank you to our supporters!