4. Heaven Knows What (2014)
The Safdie Brothers’ second collaboration follows Harley, a fictionalised version of Arielle Holmes from whom the story found its inspiration. With a somewhat reasonable budget and room to experiment with their immersive style of storytelling, the Safdie Brothers were finally able to stretch their legs as directors and experiment with techniques that would later become recognisable staples of their filmmaking. Heaven Knows What is a remarkably ambitious piece of work, owing a debt to movies like Panic in Needle Park and the character-driven work of John Cassavetes.
The film serves as a sensationalised retelling of Holmes’ time living on the streets, as she tries to manage her cult-like relationships with both heroin and young love. While the movie did nothing ground-breaking in terms of its subject matter, when we consider the Safdies’ religious-like devotion to capturing realism, no other film comes anywhere near close to the all-consuming truth of life on the streets. Through casting active drug addicts and homeless street kids, the Safdies were able to tread the line between reality and fiction; the result is neither drama nor documentary, but a poetic recreation of a complicated existence.
Although Heaven Knows What focuses primarily on a dark tale of young love, the movie does not seek to romanticise the grim reality of homelessness or drug addiction. The brothers choose never to shy away from the relentless filth and fluctuating mental health issues that come with the life-consuming enslavement of substance addiction, yet neither do they make criminals of their vagrant characters. By focusing on the agony of heartbreak and young love, the Safdies give audiences an accessible route to care for and relate to Harley, making her unrelenting moment-to-moment existence on the street seem all the more arduous.
It’s easy to see why, given the formidable subject matter, some viewers find this film exploitative. Yet, although no-doubt a difficult process for Holmes, who used the narcotic substitute methadone throughout filming, given her active contributions to the project, it seems as if the movie was made with her rather than about her. This collaborative, close to the ground style of filmmaking, becomes part of the language of a Safdie film as we move through their catalogue. Heaven Knows What is a clear voice, marking the moment audiences started to become aware of the brothers’ cinematic authorship.
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3. Daddy Longlegs (2009)
The Safdies describe Daddy Longlegs as ‘the story of a guy and his two good friends that just so happen to be his kids’. Since the movie’s release in 2009, the brothers have become known for their immersive character studies of eccentric New York outcasts, however, with their first feature, Josh and Benny chose to focus their attention on someone a little closer to home.
Based on their turbulent relationship with their own father, Daddy Longlegs stands out as the Safdies’ most autobiographical feature.
The film takes place over a two-week period in which a pair of young brothers spend some time in the custody of their incompetent but enthusiastic father. What he lacks in competent parental skills, Lenny (Ronald Bronstein) makes up for with frantic energy and a genuine desire to share in his sons’ childhood fun. As Lenny can’t seem to decide whether he wants to be their dad or their pal, the young brothers must learn to navigate his not so child-friendly world while also trying to survive his irresponsible, sometimes horrifying parenting decisions.
Long-time Safdie collaborator, Ronald Bronstein, delivers Lenny as a relentlessly selfish and cowardly individual who does not understand the duty of care he owes to his sons. Still, with his manic sense of humour and his infectious way of making any task feel like an adventure, he manages to keep them on his side. While the movie tries to paint Lenny as a Father trying his best; once you’ve seen a guy spike his kids with sleeping pills, it isn’t easy to always see him through sympathetic eyes.
Delivered with a neurotic sense of humour, Daddy Longlegs defines the Safdies’ interest in characters who allow egotism to shape their lives. The film is a must-watch for fans of the brothers’ later work, as within their curious examination of their fictional father can be seen the sordid origins of their most famous characters Connie Nikas and Howard Ratner.