When you hear the words “functional drug addict,” you tend to picture an adult — the physician quietly prescribing pharmaceuticals to himself, the cashier powering through a shift on amphetamines, the stay-at-home mom who gets by each day by getting stoned. But in “Sno Babies,” Kristen (Katie Kelly), a bright and beautiful 16-year-old whose life is a whirlwind of AP classes and gossip-girl niches and hip-hop parties, shoots heroin into the vein underneath her tongue. The sheer cringe factor aside, we recognize that the reason that she and her friend, the bad-news dark angel Hannah (Paola Andino), choose this particular method is so they won’t have to hide the track marks.
When the drug hits Kristen’s bloodstream, she sinks back into the pillow in a rush that’s so blissfully debilitating it all but knocks her out. (The music we hear is a slowly crashing rhapsody.) But once she comes down, she’s her old perky, friendly self. Heroin, says Kristen, “makes me who I wish I was,” and while that line echoes the sentiments of a thousand heroin addicts, as phrased it has a distinctly aspirational Age of Kardashian wannabe decadence. It’s the casualness of the drug use, extreme yet just another part of life, that’s the 2020 element. Kristen wants to have her dope and eat it too. And that means turning herself into an invisible junkie.
For a while, “Sno Babies” has a mood of tranquil suburban dread that reels you in. Kristen is a girl with everything — a nice family, a good school, a safe neighborhood — but we can believe in her addiction, because she has grown up in a world that’s taught her to live for pleasure, the more reckless the better. The first drug she took was OxyContin, but those pills, as she explains, are expensive ($80 a pop), and heroin costs $10 a bag and gives you a better high. She buys designer brands of dope with names like Die Hard 9 and Lucifer from people like Jeff (Niko Terho), who’s like the cocky young Tom Cruise as an upscale high-school drug salesman. When Kristen and Hannah are high, they think they’re living the dream, and “Sno Babies” is “Requiem for a Dream” as a YA soap opera.
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But the director, Bridget Smith, and the screenwriter, Mike Walsh, in trying to craft a cautionary tale (a fine ambition, though has there ever been a heroin drama that wasn’t a cautionary tale?), have concocted a plot that’s an unwieldy pile of too-muchness. And it undercuts the authenticity of the mood and the acting. It’s clear that the filmmakers didn’t want to make another getting-high-and-hitting-bottom-and-going-to-rehab-and-relapsing-and-recovery 12-step parable. But what they’ve given us instead is a vaguely faith-based tale infused with enough melodrama to fuel three luridly didactic Afterschool Specials.
Kristen and Hannah are heroin besties. They’re on top of the world until Kristen, nodded out in a bedroom, gets raped by Brandon, the one who first introduced her to drugs. She becomes pregnant — and continues to shoot heroin. Her older friend, Valerie (Meryl Jones Willliams), is pregnant. Her mother (Shannan Wilson), a real-estate broker, is trying to sell a home to a couple who are trying, with a desperate lack of success, to become pregnant.
The heavy-handedness of the pregnancy theme is the tip-off that the movie has an agenda. Kristen tries to hide her pregnancy as surely as she hides her addiction, an attempt doomed to fail. Or so you’d think.
There’s a creepy scoring-dope-in-the-hood scene (Dominic Costa, as the drug dealer Crossover, casts a spell), and a harrowing cold-turkey episode full of crying and retching and whining and dreading. But then “Sno Babies” arrives at a scene so preposterous that the film never recovers from it. Kristen, having gotten herself clean, has gone with her mother to a coffee shop to finally tell her about the pregnancy. Just as she’s working up the courage to spill the beans, she spies Hannah. It’s a schlocky movie coincidence — but the jaw-dropping part arrives when Kristen excuses herself to go to the bathroom, and as she removes her jacket we see that she’s now got a baby bump. And her mother hasn’t noticed it. She’s supposed to be Too Preoccupied With Her Career. But come on! From this point forward, Kristen literally seems to get more pregnant with every minute of screen time.
And then comes a subplot with a truly terrifying twist — terrifying because it’s so godawful. Matt (Michael Lombardi), the husband in the couple who can’t seem to get pregnant, is the co-owner of the Shiloh Nature Reserve, a valuable property inherited from his father. He becomes obsessed with the coyote that’s been running wild, and even after he and his sister sell the land, he — and the movie — remain fixated on the coyote. Why? I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say that it’s the kind of plot convolution that can spoil your day. Especially in a drug drama that started off looking like you could take it seriously.