Toward the end of Daddy Longlegs, Ben and Joshua Safdie‘s previous narrative feature, the troubled father of the title, played by longtime Safdies collaborator Ronald Bronstein, himself a talented independent filmmaker, fights off a humongous mosquito in his home, while his two sons sleep. It’s a quick flash of magical realism topping off an unsettling, darkly comical vision of bumbling parental responsibility, the roots of which are entangled both in a complex, often erratic inner life and the boundless freedom that living in New York City allows those who seemingly have no interest in day jobs, families, a savings account, or, often enough, their own health and safety. In effect, fighting off the mosquito is an eruption of love and sense of responsibility from the father for his children, whereas elsewhere in the movie his paternal instinct seems dubious at best.
The idea of responsibility to one’s self is intrinsic to what makes Daddy Longlegs so thrilling and ultimately strangely moving, and it’s an even more inextricable element to the drama of Heaven Knows What, the masterful third feature from the Safdies. Adapted from Arielle Holmes‘ recent memoir of addiction, “Mad Love in New York City,” the Safdies’ latest revolves around Harley (Holmes), a young woman living on the streets of the Big Apple amongst a cadre of fellow homeless heroin addicts and other dope pushers. The directors steep Harley’s journey in this streetwise communal aspect of living, taking time to consider a multitude of routines, ploys, and territorial leanings that Harley and her ilk utilize to make a livable junkie lifestyle. At one point, Harley and Mike (Buddy Duress), a low-level junkie and dealer who works the street with her, pull off a scheme to steal mail from a postal sack and rifle through their take on the grate above a subway tunnel. The crucial moment comes when a lady throws a plastic bag used to pick up after her dog right next to their workplace, and their reaction reflects their belief that this is, exactly, their work.
The script, co-written by Joshua Safdie and Bronstein, adds another combustible element to these quotidian struggles in the form of love, namely between Harley and Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), a death-metal-obsessed, often unintelligible, and hurtful dope-head. Like the drug that she shoots into her bloodstream, Ilya demands staggering devotion from Harley, and as the film starts, she’s clearly recently betrayed his obsessive sense of loyalty, for which he demands nothing less than her life in return for his forgiveness. And like a junkie, she succumbs to him, leading her to slash her wrist and (not exactly) enjoy stay at a psychiatric hospital for a short period of time before returning to the streets and her favored habit of getting high. It’s here where she partners up with Mike, after ditching an aggressive suitor and friend of Ilya (Ron Braunstein), and though she’s affectionate with Mike, Harley makes it very clear to him that she cannot stop loving Ilya, no matter how much he hurts her or how often he abandons her.
As shot by DP Sean Price Williams, the skilled cinematographer behind Listen Up Philip, Young Bodies Heal Quickly, and The Color Wheel, Heaven Knows What‘s imagery leans heavily on handheld close-up shots, catching the ecstasy of getting high and making out in the middle of the street or parks, as well as moments of hurried, silent contemplation, panicked problem-solving, and frustrated exhaustion. Elsewhere, the Safdies and Williams catch the pulse of city life, in long shots of bustling streets or interiors of fast food restaurants where addicts hang out and shoot up in their bathrooms. As editors, Ben Safdie and Bronstein line up one fascinating scene and sequence after another into a rushing yet carefully nuanced portrait of a marginalized community, marked by a distinct visual rhythm that is even tighter than the percussive snap of the cutting in Daddy Longlegs or, for that matter, the Safdie brothers recent documentary on would-be basketball star Lenny Cooke.
In the film’s final quarter, Harley drifts away from Mike, who constantly talks shit and tells stories of his own, seemingly adventurous life, and back towards Ilya, who accepts her back and plans to run away from the city with her. Things don’t work out, and Ilya’s whims end up having devastating consequences, but Harley’s dedication to him is unwavering, which makes the final shot of her meeting up with Mike in a Dunkin Donuts all the more saturnine.
Underneath this loose love triangle, however, is an oath of sorts from the Safdies, who are quickly becoming mainstays of the New York independent film scene. Whereas Mike only truly loves talking and speaking his mind, mythologizing his own existence in effect, Ilya requires shows of faith, acts of contrition that he can see clearly rather than listen to promises and declarations. Action drives Ilya, whereas only story matters to Mike; when Harley asks him to rearrange a plan for her drug regiment, he flips out and must be brought down by a friend. For all the coldness and disinterest that Ilya shows towards Harley at times, he believes in seeing things and acting on feelings rather than droning on about them, which could be construed as the working philosophy of these fearless filmmakers.