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Movie review

The right heroine makes all the difference

Oscar Boyson/RADiUS-TMC/Oscar Boyson, Courtesy of RADiUS-TMC

Despite, or because of, its futile repetitiousness — its endless cycle of craving, brief fulfillment, and desperate craving again — addiction has inspired great literature, from the works of Thomas De Quincey to William Burroughs, not to mention some fine rock ’n’ roll, including Lou Reed’s “Heroin.” Its pattern of insatiable desire mirrors that of life.

When removed from the subjectivity of the written word to the flat constraints of the movie screen, however, a junkie’s life can look merely boring, sordid, and solitary. It needs the element of doomed love to allow the tedium to touch on tragedy.

In “Heaven Knows What,” the protagonist who adds that element is waiflike Harley, a 19-year-old with remarkably beautiful skin, teeth, and eyes even though she is played by a real-life addict (Arielle Holmes). The directors, brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, discovered Holmes working as a temp in the Manhattan diamond district and learned about her dicey life with drugs and with the worst boyfriend in the world. They persuaded her to write it all down to be published as a book and made into a movie.

As with Larry Clark and “Kids” (1995), their motives might seem icky, but the results prove worthy. Holmes’s preternatural presence and unfeigned romantic obsessiveness elevate the filmmaker’s ogling from mere miserabilism to a Jean Genet-like sanctification of the debased.

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It begins in medias res, because everything in this kind of existence is in medias res, a steady-state hunger and hysteria punctuated by jump cuts.

Harley has apparently cheated on her boyfriend Ilya (a pasty-faced, nasty Caleb Landry-Jones) and begs him for forgiveness. She prostrates herself in ways that would embarrass fans of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” finally asking him if he would forgive her if she killed herself. He says yes and she slices her wrist and spends time in Bellevue.

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She is the Manic-Depressive Pixie Bad Dream Girl, and for a while this looks like the kind of movie in which the only ones more despicable than the creeps are those that let them get away with it and ask for more. Harley does try to extricate herself from this folie à deux, attaching herself to less worthless male companions, like Skully (Necro), who offers her rational alternatives but has ulterior motives. There’s also Mike (Buddy Duress), who wants her as a business partner; she helps with such entrepreneurial projects as stealing 5-Hour Energy shots and selling them to newsstands.

All this desperation and squalor reeks of authenticity. Many of the actors are from the streets themselves, and such locations as a crash pad rented out by a dotty lady could never be dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter. Only Landry-Jones’s Ilya looks out of place with his numb Brandoisms. Harley deserves better, someone as beautiful as herself, and she’ll never find him.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.