D: Cory Finley / 92m
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Francie Swift, Kaili Vernoff
Amanda (Cooke) and Lily (Taylor-Joy) were once the best of friends, but circumstances affecting both their lives have caused them to drift apart. But those same circumstances now see them brought together again as Lily provides tutoring to Amanda, and they begin to re-establish their friendship. Amanda is emotionally crippled, while Lily is quite the opposite, and feels too much. When Amanda realises that Lily despises her stepfather, Mark (Sparks), it’s not long before she’s asking why Lily doesn’t murder him. Shocked at first, Lily begins to come around to the idea when her mother (Swift) tells her that she’s being sent to a boarding school for children with behavioural issues. Needing an alibi, they enlist the help of convicted felon, Tim (Yelchin), a hapless would-be drug dealer. With their plan set up for a weekend when both will be away, it’s down to Tim to carry out the crime, but things go awry and Mark remains very much alive. The plan, though, undergoes something of a change, one that sees Lily take charge by herself in an effort to resolve the situation once and for all…
A deliciously bittersweet, and biting, black comedy, Thoroughbreds is the debut feature of writer-director Cory Finley, and is as confident and assured a debut as you could hope for. Originally conceived of as a play, Finley’s exploration of two teenagers and their emotional differences, and the path both find themselves intent upon pursuing, is a striking and beautifully composed ode to teenage disaffection (and purposeful affectation). Amanda and Lily’s relationship provides challenges to both young women in terms of their emotional growth, and Finley provides an object lesson in how to create and develop two separate characters whose own individual needs quietly and inevitably dovetail until both are able to express those elements each other have been lacking. Amanda learns how to empathise, and Lily learns how to rationalise. These things make both of them stronger, and part of the pleasure of Finley’s finely judged screenplay is the way in which Amanda learns how to bond while Lily learns how to be alone. Throughout the movie, the tense dynamic established between them never quite settles comfortably into a groove that allows the viewer to predict what will happen next, and Finley manipulates the material accordingly.
It’s a movie that contains many examples of black comedy, and darkly satirical thriller elements that often subvert the modern day noir feel that Finley ascribes to the narrative. The glossy yet all too orderly environment of Lily’s home provides a trenchant backdrop for the largely muted passions on display, and Finley’s careful but invigorating direction ensures the movie is as visually arresting as it is emotionally powerful. As the murderous-minded Amanda and Lily, Cooke and Taylor-Joy both give excellent performances, while Yelchin (in one of his last roles), is marvellous as Tim, a man with dreams that aren’t matched by his ability or skill to see them through. It’s also worth noting Sparks’ performance as Mark, the ostensible bad guy who wears a frown on his face like a damaging accusation; it’s a tightly controlled portrayal, and all the more effective for not being the stereotype it so easily could have been. On the technical side, there’s much else to recommend the movie, from Lyle Vincent’s crisp, artfully composed cinematography, to Jeremy Woodward’s austere yet evocative production design, and Erik Friedlander’s memorably haunting score. With a sharp, calculating nature bubbling just below the surface, Thoroughbreds is a welcome addition to the usually underwhelming teen angst movies we normally get, and is all the better for managing to avoid the genre’s many pitfalls.
Rating: 8/10 – a movie that creates a precise and prescribed milieu on which to hang its tale of what happens when stifled emotions meet murderous ambition, Thoroughbreds is a genuine surprise, and a bona fide pleasure as well; with terrific performances wringing every possible nuance from his razor sharp screenplay, Finley’s debut highlights the arrival (hopefully) of someone with a great career ahead of them.