We’re getting a bunch of high-profile teen flicks this month, and I’ve seen them all by now, but the only one I care to see again is Thoroughbreds, which is in theaters currently. Granted, a big reason I saw it a second time was that the first time, the picture was unnaturally dark at AMC Parks at Arlington, so much so that the theater gave the audience free passes to compensate. Still, I found myself enjoying this icy cold treat immensely even then.
Set in the posh neighborhoods of Connecticut, the story begins with Andover student Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) agreeing to tutor former friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke) for the upcoming SATs. Lily’s being paid $200 an hour for the gig, because Amanda recently moved up from sociopath to psychopath by mutilating her mother’s beloved thoroughbred horse before killing it. Amanda knows what she is, and feels the same way about it as she does about everything else, which is nothing. “[My mind] doesn’t make me a bad person,” she says. “It just means I have to work a little harder than everyone else to be good.” Lily is repulsed and mesmerized (“You’re like one of those YouTube videos of people popping their zits or babies born without faces”), and keeps her around because she needs Amanda’s advice on handling Mark (Paul Sparks), her emotionally abusive stepdad who works out constantly, collects katana, goes trophy hunting in Africa, and could well use the horse’s treatment.
Writer-director Cory Finley originally wrote the script expecting it to be a stage play, and you can see its theatrical origins in the long exchanges of dialogue between characters. This could easily turn static, but Finley (a 28-year-old with no previous film experience) uses Erik Friedlander’s dissonant, percussion-heavy soundtrack and the incessant rumbling of an offscreen ergometer that Mark works out on to make these plush surroundings seem oppressive. He favors long takes like the tracking shot that follows Amanda in an early scene when she walks through Lily’s house, but the device becomes especially powerful during the climax, when he zooms in on Amanda falls asleep on a couch in front of the TV while the action happens out of our view.
These would make little difference without good acting, and there’s a feverish chemistry between the two lead actresses. It’s hard to give an interesting performance playing a character who admits to never feeling anything and delivers all her lines in a neutral tone, but Cooke (from Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and the upcoming Ready Player One) pulls the trick off easily, coming off as terribly funny when Amanda woodenly tries to show Lily empathy (“Do you need, like, a hug?”). Taylor-Joy also has a difficult part as a girl who sort of falls in love with her intelligent, affectless friend who’s a bad influence at a time when she needs one. She’s the one who keeps the movie from becoming soulless, and still her wide-set eyes creep me out, and there’s no visual more scary than the sight of her watching a violent film on TV with the sound at deafening levels while slowly and unblinkingly eating her peas. Watching these two volley lines back and forth is so much fun.
There’s also the late Anton Yelchin in his last feature film appearance, giving us yet another reason to be sad about his death in a freak accident two years ago. He plays a skeezy drug dealer who thinks he’s running these girls but is really just a pawn in their murder plot. An awesome scene punctures this guy’s male bravura as Amanda methodically dismantles his pathetic life goals before strongarming him into helping them.
I’d like to see Thoroughbreds on the stage at some point, where it would make a great female spin on Equus. Right now, it’s a great showcase for a bright first-time filmmaker and two electric young English actresses. They don’t put a foot wrong in a script that’s filled with potholes, and so this black comedy never becomes too glib or too grim. It’s perfectly balanced, and a blast for those of us who prefer our teen angst with a body count. I don’t know if this is a better teen movie than Lady Bird, but I think I’ll watch this again before I watch Lady Bird again.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke. Written and directed by Cory Finley. Rated R.