An art-house coming-of-age by way of a darkly comic exploitation film (the tagline RICH GIRLS GONE BAD!!! wouldn’t be entirely out of line), Thoroughbreds may not be as pureblooded as its namesake, but it sure is a remarkably confident, efficient debut from writer-director Cory Finley.
The film stars Anya Taylor-Joy (Split) and Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) as high schoolers in an extremely wealthy Connecticut suburb. Lily (Taylor-Joy, further building herself into a star) and Amanda (Cooke, doing a swell audition to take over Winona Ryder’s part in the inevitable Beetlejuice remake) were childhood friends that grew apart but are reunited through a tutoring session, forging an awkward bond both seem to need. Amanda has been ostracized by her classmates and is just coming to terms with being an utterly unfeeling sociopath. Lily’s father died a few years prior, and she’s dealing with an unbearable new stepdad (Paul Sparks, playing a dryly hilarious caricature of the fleece vest-clad modern rich) lording over her life. Once the emotionless one plants the seed that murdering him is an option, stepdad Mark’s rowing machine beats through the floor like an inverted Tell-Tale Heart, begging to be stopped; killing him becomes a fixation for Lily and the ultimate goal of these unlikely, pretty, white, doe-eyed co-conspirators.
To be clear, though, this isn’t exactly Thelma & Louise, pitting a strong-willed female friendship against the patriarchal establishment. The horse-meat of it being a class satire, Thoroughbreds plays more to defying societal expectations than to a feminist thrust—finding humanity in the psychopathic, psychopathy in the privileged, and greater morality in the discarded poor is the larger theme. Anton Yelchin, playing an older dirtbag and loser of a drug dealer the teens pull into their plot, is probably the most likable character ever on screen, and he is an absolute turd (though Yelchin’s scene-stealing comic performance will really make you wish this wasn’t his final role before his untimely death).
But it’s Finley who deserves the majority of the credit here. At a slim 90 minutes, Thoroughbreds is admirably tight and, in a particular rarity these days, leaves you wanting more. Almost wholly devoid of side characters and subplots, it’s a funny and tense story with laser focus, and it delivers with similar intensity. That it’s so beholden to its tone and endgame is probably its biggest solitary fault; as vast as it is, there’s little room to breathe in this McMansion. Yet while the film is as austerely manicured as its leads and their visibly landscaped homes, it undoubtedly deserves the kind of underground cult following the relatively similar likes of Heathers and American Psycho have drawn. The harsher critique is that it’s been marketed as a niche picture instead of the broadly-entertaining teen comic-thriller it is. The distributor has crippled this winning horse far too soon.
Director: Cory Finley
Studio: Focus Features
Runtime: 90 minutes
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks, Francie Swift