A young woman named Harley enters a public library, where her quasi-estranged boyfriend Ilya is illicitly drinking with some friends. She has just purchased some razor blades after Ilya told her that he could only forgive her if she died. She hands him a note: “I’m sorry, OK,” Harley tells him, “but I’m about to die right now, and I really want you to be there.” Ilya takes her letter and tears it up, callously returning to his friends. “If you love me,” he later tells her, “you would have killed yourself by now.” The woman goes off and sits in the park, where she calmly slices her wrist open. Ilya refuses to go to the hospital with her.
Luckily, this is all just a movie: It’s a scene from Benny and Josh Safdie’s unvarnished take on the lives of New York street hustlers and addicts, Heaven Knows What. The film, which played at the New York Film Festival last fall and will be released on May 29, follows Harley as she wanders the anonymous streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn in search of companionship and her next fix. Harley bounces between friends and acquaintances while continually being drawn back into the orbit of the callous Ilya and the call of heroin.
But the idea that we can rest easy in the film’s fiction is quickly complicated by a little backstory: The film is based on a memoir by a recovering addict named Arielle Holmes, and the young woman portraying the character based on Holmes (named Harley here) is played by none other than Holmes herself. When Harley tells Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) she is prepared to kill herself, or later, when she desperately begs a friend to give her a double dose of her nightly fix, Holmes herself is present onscreen, reliving what presumably must be some of the worst moments of her real, offscreen life.
There is a long, if infrequent, cinematic tradition of employing nonprofessional actors for an added frisson of realism. The roots of this impulse were political: Using untrained performers was a means of quietly paying tribute to ordinary men and women, those lacking the glamour of the movie star. The post-World War II Italian neorealists, for instance, preferred untrained actors to emphasize their postwar devastation: suicidal children, frightened soldiers, and desperate, lonely old men. This neorealism was a cinema of alternating frenzy and resignation, and its directors, Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica foremost among them, sought out nonprofessional performers in the hopes of summoning a visceral response to events onscreen. (When I spoke with the Safdies, they quickly mentioned neorealism—along with Larry Clark’s Kids and the documentary Streetwise—as a guiding influence.)
Within this subgenre was the idea of having a nonprofessional performer portray themselves onscreen. Sometimes, these were celebrities wrangled into playing themselves in hagiographical biopics: Babe Ruth in The Babe Ruth Story, or Jackie Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story. (Pancho Villa and Muhammad Ali would also play themselves onscreen.) More often they were unfamiliar faces, their presence offering mute testimony to their films’ claims to realism. Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder cast nonprofessional Berliners at their leisure in 1930’s Mennschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), and Kent Mackenzie featured Native Americans playing mildly fictionalized versions of themselves, adrift in downtown Los Angeles, in the classic 1961 proto-indie The Exiles.
More recently, the casting of unfamiliar nonprofessionals as themselves found its true calling in the work of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, in particular in his masterpiece, Close-Up (1990). Close-Up was a psychologically ambiguous portrait of Kiarostami’s directorial colleague and rival Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who had been dogged by a persistent ne’er-do-well named Hossain Sabzian intent on passing himself off as the famous filmmaker. Kiarostami cast both Makhmalbaf and Sabzian as themselves, with Sabzian reliving his small triumphs and ultimate humiliation, and Makhmalbaf forced to re-encounter, for the length of an entire film shoot, his nemesis and doppelgänger.
In other recent work, the nonprofessional performers have been a mute reminder of the horror of the everyday. FAA national operations manager Ben Sliney played himself in Paul Greengrass’s 2006 film United 93 and throughout the film we come to understand that he is reliving the worst day of his life onscreen. Sliney’s presence is a subtle indication that United 93 is intended to be less a reimagination than a reenactment, scrupulously recreating the events of that morning. We admire Sliney’s quiet professionalism and determination, while our awareness of the tragedy weighs down each scene. A hijacker sits in an airport terminal, surrounded by the happy babble of cell-phone chatter of the people he is about to murder. A roomful of air-traffic controllers emits a dull roar of astonishment at watching an airplane cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and plunge into the World Trade Center.
Filmmakers like Kiarostami and Greengrass turned to nonperformers in search of a spontaneity they found lacking in professional actors and to imbue their fiction filmmaking with some of documentary’s claims to truth. We knew what we were watching was only, at best, a recreation of genuine events, and yet the presence of these real figures, reliving their own lives, gave us pause. If this was not reality, it was the next closest thing.
The Safdies met Holmes during a brief interlude in Manhattan’s famous diamond district. Josh Safdie had been “in costume” as a flamboyantly dressed diamond dealer, researching a film project, when he met Holmes, then a trainee dealer. Josh was struck by her presence. “I met her, and I had felt like I had stumbled across Julia Roberts,” he told me. To learn more about her life and get all the details right when he told his filmmaker-partner brother, Benny, about her story, Josh asked Holmes, then only 19, to write down some of her experiences. “I think the most she ever sent me in one day was seventy pages,” remembers Josh. “That’s a lot of writing. And she wrote that in an Apple store, standing, until the Apple store stopped allowing her to do that, so I gave her my laptop and she would just write.” The text became her forthcoming memoir, Mad Love in New York City.
Casting Holmes as herself was the only way the Safdies could conceive of their nascent film project. “There was no movie without her,” says Josh. “Our producer, when things were getting hectic, would try to threaten her: ‘Millions of girls out there would love to have your part in this film.’ We would pull him aside, and be like, ‘What are you talking about? There’s no film without her!’”
Transforming the film’s subject into its star made for a delicate dance between bowing to her own superior knowledge of the material and crafting it for public consumption. “The minutiae of this film was dictated by Arielle Holmes,” says Josh. “She was a major collaborator in this project.” But casting a non-actor as a star also meant occasionally pushing back against reality in favor of the subtle artifice of realism: “There were times where she would be like, ‘Well, that’s not how it happened to me, we need to do it this way.’ And we’re like, ‘No, we need to do it this way because people need to feel how you felt.’” Having been present themselves at the events being recreated, actors like Holmes confer a kind of grace on what otherwise might have been unbearably gauche. Their very presence is a kind of certification of the film’s veracity.
Heaven Knows What uses Holmes’s presence to sidestep the numbing familiarity of most movies about addiction. It is a stinging portrait of squandered lives and squandered potential that is itself full of life and spontaneity. The Safdies, previously responsible for such modest mumblecore efforts as Daddy Longlegs (2009), have taken a huge leap forward, enabled by Holmes to dig under the surface of their literally and metaphorically wasted characters.
Like all art forms, the movies are forever struggling with what it might mean to be real. One generation’s reality is another’s sodden cliché. The goalposts are constantly moving, and yet audiences are hungry as ever for the unadulterated “truth.” French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette once observed that every film was a documentary of its own making. Heaven Knows What is the latest incarnation of a subset of films that seeks to document what happens when an ordinary person is asked to relive her life as the camera rolls. The artifice of storytelling undergoes an alchemical change, via the presence of these performers, until we feel that we are watching, at long last, a certain kind of truth.
This piece has been updated. An earlier version stated that Holmes wrote 17 pages in one day. In fact, she wrote 70.