Thoroughbreds tells the story of Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), two upper-class teenagers who are in the midst of rekindling their friendship. However, Amanda’s sociopathic lack of emotions and abrasive attitude rub up against Lily’s prim and proper way of living. This gets complicated once Amanda discovers that Lily strongly resents her stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). But, when the two hatch a plan to permanently dispose of Mark, they start to learn a lot more about each other.
Sounds cheery, doesn’t it? Well, Thoroughbreds ain’t exactly a feel-good movie but it’s definitely good.
The Kids Aren’t Alright
Being a teenager is one of the most tumultuous times in a person’s life. It’s often the era where we begin to question, confront, and even rebel against societal norms and the status quo. That’s one of the reasons movies about twisted teens often capture our imagination. We remember being anti-social, combative, idealistic, and/or just weird when compared to our peers. Thoroughbreds deftly taps into that feeling in a relatable way by letting us see the world through two young women who are at pivotal moments in their lives.
We’ve got Lily, an incredibly affluent girl who has recently lost her father and is finally having her insulated life challenged by the introduction of her stepfather, Mark. Lily acts exactly as she’s been taught to — politely cheery, reserved, and projecting a sense of refinement — but recent events in her social life and the domineering presence Mark has exerted over both Lily and her mother is forcing Lily’s facade to crack.
Then, there’s Amanda. It’s clear from the outset that Amanda is having trouble relating to other people in any genuine way. We see her mimicking a smile in a mirror and even teaching Lily a technique to make herself cry on command. There’s also a landmark event in Amanda’s early childhood involving a horse that we learn more about as the film progresses, and it paints Amanda as a scary but also sympathetic kid who just can’t figure out how to function the way she’s supposed to.
Putting these two together and having them plot Mark’s murder is great. Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke feel like real friends and that chemistry sells so much of the movie. Their performances elevate what could be thin caricatures of teenage angst into truly sad and believable characters. This is a case of pitch-perfect casting and it’s likely that the film might not be as strong if it weren’t for these two superb actresses.
It’s also worth mentioning the role of Tim (Anton Yelchin), a dropout loser that gets wrapped up in Lily and Amanda’s plans. Tim is a deluded nobody who thinks he’s going to be the king of crime just as soon as he can make the right connections. It’s heartbreaking to see Yelchin in one of his final performances, especially since he brings a pitiful slant to a skeevy character that could easily be a one-note gag.
A Stunning Directorial Debut
Another element that makes Thoroughbreds work is how immaculately constructed it is on a technical level. This is writer/director Cory Finley’s first feature film and it’s a hell of a start. Finley adapted his own play to the screen and there is a clear influence in stage direction when it comes to how the camera is positioned and moved. We get a lot of long takes and establishing shots so that the audience really feels the geography of the world these characters inhabit.
Admittedly, Finley’s script isn’t quite as tight as his direction. Actually, that’s not fair. The plotting and pacing are stellar. It’s in the film’s tone that there is a bit of a disconnect. Thoroughbreds is a chilly movie and that can make it tough to completely link up with the emotional beats of the film. Granted, the film is examining the coldness of the upper class through these characters, so it’s not a mismanagement of tone at all. It’s an inherent aspect of the story that might be tough for some viewers to penetrate. It’s not a damning issue but it’s one that an audience has to be able to sync with in order to get the full experience that the film offers.
But, the most effective filmmaking component is the score by Erik Friedlander. Friedlander uses a very barren soundscape comprised primarily of cellos, light piano, and percussion. That stripped down audioscape is utilized in an amazing fashion. This is practically a horror movie score. Friedlander’s music keeps a constant sense of tension and dread hanging over the story for its entire running time. It’s impressive stuff.
Putting the “Fun” in Funeral
A lot has been said about Thoroughbreds being a dark comedy. It feels necessary to focus on this because it will probably be a selling point for people who are interested in the film. Thoroughbreds definitely has a number of moments that will elicit some laughs out of those with a twisted sense of humor. But, branding it a comedy might be a step too far.
Many of the comedic beats of the film don’t come out of jokes or gags but rather a sense of uncomfortableness. For example, Mark walks in on Lily and Amanda practicing their fake crying. That is admittedly funny but the film doesn’t take it as a goofy turn. Thoroughbreds is never laughing at its characters or sacrificing their dramatic facets in order to land an easy chuckle.
To be honest, that is a compliment or a detriment depending on your perspective. At times, it feels like Thoroughbreds could use an injection of outright humor to help offset the morose nature of the two lead characters. But, that would probably betray the compact sense of tone that Finley creates throughout the picture.
If you have a dry and dark sense of humor, Thoroughbreds will surely get you to laugh a few times. But, don’t go in thinking this is as knowingly uproarious as something like Heathers. It’s closer to Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster.
Is Thoroughbreds Good?
All that said, Thoroughbreds is a wonderful movie. It’s weird, funny, thought-provoking, and anchored by great performances and praiseworthy filmmaking. If you’re a teenager who feels like you belong on the fringes of society — or you’re an adult who still feels that way — this is going to be necessary viewing. It might be too cold for some people, but if you like your movies that way, this one is a must-see.