‘Thoroughbreds’ follows an upper-class high school student in suburban Connecticut, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, ‘The Witch’, ‘Split’), who reconnects with the equally-privileged but very strange Amanda (Olivia Cooke, ‘Ready Player One’, ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’), after Amanda goes full-on ‘Equus’ and euthanises her crippled horse with a knife, resulting in charges of animal cruelty.
The girls had previously been childhood best friends, but grew apart after the death of Lily's father. They meet again under the pretence of hanging out and having a casual tutoring session, but Amanda knows that her mother (Kaili Vernoff) has paid Lily to socialise with her. Lily denies being paid, but Amanda, left emotionless by an unspecified mental disorder, is unfazed. Bored of faking niceties and the feelings she doesn’t possess, she casually cuts through her old friend’s pretences, slicing away Lily’s white lies, her feigned good manners and polite-society politeness. Lily meets with Amanda again, this time voluntarily, and they rekindle their friendship.
Lily lives with her mother (Francie Swift) and stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks, ‘The Greatest Showman’, TV’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’), a wealthy but abrasive fitness enthusiast whom she hates. When Mark enrols Lily in a boarding school for girls with behavioural issues, the two girls scheme to kill Lily's stepfather by blackmailing a low-level drug dealer (the late Anton Yelchin, ‘The Green Room’, ‘Star Trek Beyond’).
‘Thoroughbreds’ was originally scripted for the stage before being adapted for film, and it shows: taking place over four plot-pivoting chapters, the dialogue is abundant and the locations are limited. Cory Finley’s script recalls everything from the darkly comedic privileged teens of ‘Heathers’ and ‘Cruel Intentions’, through to the neo-noir of Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick’ and the tension of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’.
Everything about Finley’s fiendishly clever, savagely funny directorial debut is precise: the words, shots, cuts, and the stealthily gliding movement of the camera.
Everything about Finley’s fiendishly clever, savagely funny directorial debut is precise: the words, shots, cuts, and the stealthily gliding movement of the camera. A special mention should be given to Erik Friedlander’s anxious score and the sound design, with Finley using off-screen noise to swell suspense around things like the muffled whirr and thump of Mark’s exercise machine.
A pair of early-twentysomething, England-raised actors, Olivia Cooke and Anya-Taylor Joy have pursued interesting roles in the past few years, straddling indie and blockbuster fare. In ‘Thoroughbreds’, they get to flex their muscles, free from the constraints of love interest or final girl characters. Both actors immediately sell Lily and Amanda’s deeply shared history and go on to savour the juicy dialogue, playing expertly off each other. In his final role, Anton Yelchin is all dumb swagger as an oily fall-guy who gets way out of his league.
‘Thoroughbreds’ is a deeply impressive first film from a writer/director who is able to effortlessly tap into the humour and darkness of the teenage psyche.