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Heaven Knows What co-director Joshua Safdie discovered a homeless, heroin-addicted Arielle Holmes near the entrance to a New York City subway station and decided to cast her in a film.

It sounds like something out of a 1930s musical: A filmmaker walking the streets of New York spies a girl and decides on the spot to cast her in his new film. It's exactly what happened to Joshua Safdie, the co-director of the astonishing new drama Heaven Knows What, which screened last fall at the Toronto, New York and Venice film festivals – the only 2014 film to score that particular trifecta. But the details of Safdie's 2013 encounter with his future star were anything but Hollywood. Arielle Holmes, the beguiling young woman he met near the subway entrance at 47th Street, wasn't nearly screen-ready: As Safdie soon discovered, she was a homeless drug addict.

"I told her I wanted to put her in a movie, and asked if we could meet at another time," says Safdie, who, along with his brother, Benny, has directed a series of acclaimed independent features, including the lovely lo-fi comedy Go Get Some Rosemary. "When I saw her again … I could see that she was a street kid. She said she was tired … she kept mentioning her boyfriend, Ilya, as if I'd met him a hundred times. I got her a job in a music video and she didn't show up, and two weeks later she called me from a payphone to tell me she'd just gotten out of Bellevue. I went to see her and there was this big bandage on her wrist, and she said, 'I tried to kill myself. I slit my wrist, my boyfriend forced me to do it.'"

Holmes was 19 and addicted to heroin when Safdie met her. Cut to a couple of years later and she's been getting rave reviews for her performance in Heaven Knows What. Holmes plays Harley as a loosely fictionalized version of herself, right down to the boyfriend named Ilya (played by actor Caleb Landry Jones) and the suicide attempt – one of several visceral scenes to test even the steeliest filmgoers' constitutions.

Heaven Knows What is a demanding and disorienting film, and that out-of-control quality seems to stem from the circumstances of its production. Safdie says the screenplay, officially written by Benny and their collaborator, Ronnie Bronstein, was first developed by Holmes when he encouraged her to put her stories down on paper. "It was unbelievable writing," he says. "She didn't leave any details out. It was immediately cinematic. The characters just popped out."

Given its highly unorthodox genesis, it is unsurprising that Heaven Knows What does not look or feel like a conventional movie. The woozy camerawork and frenetic soundtrack constitute an attempt to make what its director calls "a movie that's always on the edge of its seat." And yet what's most remarkable about the film is its sense of documentary detail rather than sensationalistic overstatement. Holmes's literally lived-in performance confers a sense of authenticity that the filmmaking never undermines. "We almost threw in the towel a couple of times," says Safdie, who cast the film with mostly non-professional actors and spent time with Holmes's friends during shooting. "It had to do with the way these kids fetishize death. It's very dark."

Safdie says another way into Heaven Knows What is to look at it as a romance: Ilya sustains Arielle/Harley even as the relationship threatens to consume her. "We thought of it as an opera from the second we started it," he says. "We did a screening for a group of teenagers, and that was the part they loved. They couldn't look away from the screen."

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