"Thoroughbreds" offers emotional complexity and a call for self awareness
If “Thoroughbreds” existed as an R-rated examination of the fucked up mean girls culture of upper class Connecticut, it would be a much less interesting movie. Thankfully, little time is spent at schools, parties or around the high school scene that clearly influences the characters central to the action in one of the most eye-catching films dropped at AFI in 2017.
As it stands, the two running strands through the directorial debut of Cory Finley make for a wonderful piece of cinema, as does the very capable staging. This may have been adapted from an unproduced play (written by Finley), but you’d never know based on what ends up on screen.
Amanda (Olivia Cooke) feels nothing (emotionally, anyway), but that doesn’t make her a bad person (she, “just needs to try a little harder to be good”) while her estranged friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) is buttoned up, cheerful, but might not be exactly what she seems. They’re brought back together by Amanda’s mom, but it’s Lily’s dickish stepfather that ultimately connects the two girls (and the late Anton Yelchin in what is, officially, his last on-screen performance).
What makes “Thoroughbreds” great isn’t the secondary theme (what you see isn’t necessarily what you get), it’s the primary one: that to know oneself is of great value. The idea is we’re all born with baked in flaws, and that’s okay, so long as we address them. Amanda takes these flaws head-on, and it can be off-putting at times, but her heart is in the right place, which is important.
That’s a valuable message, and an interesting take on humanity as a whole. Finley manages to present many facets of the human experience despite so few characters in the film. The stepfather character accurately points out Lily’s lack of empathy, something Amanda agrees with, but his own lack of self-awareness is overwhelming. It’s not so much an attempt to humanize his character as it’s, “yep, that’s one point for a cylinder of evil.”
Meanwhile Yelchin's drug-dealer-to-minors character can charitably be described as a loser with big dreams. It's hard to say he means well, but he's trying, you know? Lily's mother empathizes with her daughter, but not enough to actually do anything about it — that's a commonality shared between both mother figures in this film, which is interesting.
These themes bubble to the surface because every piece of Finley’s film is painstakingly pieced together. The sound and lighting are excellent, and used to perfection in the third act with two scenes in particular coming together to Hitchcockian perfection. Rhythms that seem like mere tics early in the film are referenced again for narrative purposes as the film progresses — everything serves the story.
And that’s what makes this film so exciting; not just because Finley is an emerging talent, but because it solidifies Taylor-Joy as someone to watch after a stunning performance in “The Witch.” Cooke also shines with brilliant comedic timing in a film that would have greatly suffered with a worse actress in her role. As dark as “Thoroughbreds” gets, and certainly it goes to dark places, it manages to weave its way towards the light if you look in the right spots.