As the old adage goes, “appearances can be deceiving.”
The sereneness of the suburbs (of – let’s just say – more “affluent” neighborhoods) is a favorite setting for many films, particularly ones that use it not to bask in its prosperity or presumed sense of innocence. On the contrary, films such as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, BLUE VELVET, HEATHERS, and even HALLOWEEN (just to name a few) use this setting in a more cynical fashion – to illustrate the darkness that could very well lie beneath the surface of these seemingly benign communities. Cory Finley’s directorial debut THOROUGHBREDS continues this tradition, in a style that almost feels like he is literally ripping out the heart of his setting just for the pleasure of showing us how black it truly is. And after experiencing this in theaters back in March, I have it say – it works.
Amanda (played by Olivia Cooke) and Lily (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) are old childhood friends that start to reconnect after Amanda is sent to Lily for tutoring. After a scandal involving Amanda’s horse ostracizes her from the neighborhood, Amanda’s mother coerces Lily into hanging out with Amanda more often, hoping that seeing an old friend again will help cure what is ailing her daughter lately. During their first session, Amanda – inexpressive, wooden, and soulless – immediately detects that Lily is putting on a facade, hiding many feelings about her life, particularly in regards to her stepfather, Mark (played by Paul Sparks). As the pair grow closer, their conversations start to grow darker and increasingly uncomfortable – until eventually, the real sides of both Amanda and Lily come out in full force.
The first things I need to bring up are the performances of the leads; both Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy are fantastic in this film. Cooke’s portrayal of Amanda had me constantly questioning whether she was just your typical jaded, emotionless teenager, or if she was truly a sociopath. Her intentionally-dry line deliveries helped this come across spectacularly, and added a bit of humor to some very dark situations. Contrast this with Taylor-Joy’s Lily, who (on paper) is your typical privileged teenager and the complete opposite of Amanda (the film’s trailer loudly asserts that Lily “feels everything,” while Amanda “feels nothing”), but in fact has more in common with her than she initially thinks.
Watching the two actresses together, I was in a constant state of awe at how well they knew their characters, and their natural on-screen chemistry greatly reflected this. Throughout the film, I was frequently wondering which character was the most damaged. On one hand, Amanda’s sociopathic tendencies make her the leading candidate; she is uncomfortably straight-forward in her speaking, and yet she has faked all of her emotional responses in her entire life simply as a way to fit in with the crowd (there is a great scene early on in the film of Amanda showing Lily how “easy” it is to start fake crying – a concept that Lily just can’t wrap her head around). On the other hand, Lily comes off as more manipulative; she is always lying, trying her best to hide her true feelings and/or intentions from people, while always talking behind their backs. In other words – she’s a phony. At first, Lily is horrified at Amanda’s bluntness about everything. But as the film progresses, you begin to see a transformation in Lily; well, some might call it a transformation, but the film implies that this side of Lily was in her all along – and she just needed someone like Amanda in her life to awaken it. This speaks not only to the brilliance of both actresses, but to the effectiveness of THOROUGHBRED’s story.
What director Finley (who also wrote the screenplay) does is paint this portrait of what looks to be your typical teenage angst story, and takes it in a direction that feels refreshingly dark. I have heard and read about THOROUGHBREDS being compared to HEATHERS in its style and tone, and those comparisons are not far off. I recently took in a special screening of HEATHERS at Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn, and afterwards, I was amazed at not only how much that film was able to get away with (it was the ‘80s, after all), but at how expertly the film treaded that line between uncomfortably dark and cunningly funny. In that sense, THOROUGHBREDS is its spiritual successor, managing to also tread that line with as just as much style and finesse; and coming from a first-time director in Cory Finley, that’s an even more impressive feat.
Two other things to point out: first, the incredible score by Erik Friedlander, which came off as a rich homage of Hitchcock, made each already-tense moment even more so, and was key in making Finley’s story that much more effective. Secondly, this was Anton Yelchin’s (who played part-time drug dealer Tim in a supporting role) final film, and while he didn’t have too much screen time, he reminded viewers of just how talented he was, and how greatly he will be missed by all.
All in all, THOROUGHBREDS serves as a unique character study into the lives of disenchanted and disillusioned teenagers, coming off more like a psychological thriller than a coming-of-age film. It also delivers biting subtext on wealth and privilege that makes the film all that more timely in its release. While the story may seem to cop out at the end by giving us an all-too-convenient solution, the journey to that point is an engaging one, and the performances of both Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy make that journey all the more stronger and enjoyable. Those of you looking for your next cinematic challenge will find that THOROUGHBREDS satisfies your appetite quite nicely.
THOROUGHBREDS is officially out today (June 5th) on Blu-ray and DVD. Click HERE to purchase (courtesy of Amazon).
2018 • 95 Minutes • United States
Color • English • Focus Features
: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Francie Swift