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Review: Thoroughbreds (2018)

Thoroughbreds (2018)

Directed by: Cory Finley

Premise: Two teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke) reconnect after drifting into different social circles. They consider killing the stepfather of one of the girls.
What Works: Thoroughbreds is a stylish and darkly funny movie. The story unfolds primarily within the family home of Lily, a well-to-do prep school student, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who has been expelled for academic dishonesty and is now stuck at home with her disagreeable stepfather. Lily reconnects with Amanda, played by Olivia Cooke. Although she’s never diagnosed, Amanda is probably a psychopath. She can only imitate emotional reactions and manipulates others into getting what she wants. Lily and Amanda begin as study buddies but gradually share each other’s secrets and contemplate killing Lily’s stepfather. Thoroughbreds is a film with complex characters. In storytelling, characters are generally understood through their wants and needs. Desire drives the characters to action and drama comes out of their struggle to get what they want. The characters of Thoroughbreds have superficial desires; what they really want is unspoken and revealed underneath the things that they say and do. What’s fascinating about this story is the way in which the characters manipulate each other to get what they want while not necessarily conscious of what that really is. The characters are also morally ambiguous. No one in Thoroughbreds is totally good or totally bad. Virtually everyone does things in the movie that are bad but the filmmakers hold back on the villainy. That makes the character’s choices much more excruciating. If the stepfather was an abuser it would be quite easy to leap to the conclusion of killing him. But because he’s just disagreeable the decision to kill him retains its moral complexity. The filmmakers handle this heavy subject matter very well and Thoroughbreds includes a great deal of humor. It’s a bleak gallows humor, which is appropriate to the subject matter, and it relieves some of the tension while also making otherwise unlikable characters much more tolerable. Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke are terrific in their roles as Lily and Amanda and they have a believable relationship. Also notable is Anton Yelchin, in one of his final roles, as a local drug dealer.

What Doesn’t: Part of the premise of Thoroughbreds is that the two young women were friends years ago but drifted apart at some point during adolescence. Taylor-Joy and Cooke’s characters are so different that it is hard to imagine them ever being friends in the first place. The movie creates very specific circumstances through which they reconnect and that papers over the implausibility of their friendship. Thoroughbreds concludes abruptly. The ending sufficiently wraps up the story but it also runs through the final events very quickly and then leaps forward through time. Good stories generally transition the audience out of the movie. Thoroughbreds doesn’t quite give the audience enough time to process what has happened.

DVD extras: Deleted scenes and featurettes.

Bottom Line: Thoroughbreds is a darkly humorous story of murder and desire. It’s a smart film that’s also funny. But Thoroughbreds is also a crafty film that avoids resorting to obvious storytelling conventions and challenges the audience with unexpected twists.

Episode: #711 (August 12, 2018)