‘Thoroughbreds’: A cutthroat portrait of fatal teenage apathy

Fake tears are a major recurring gag in Cory Finley’s directorial debut, Thoroughbreds, a refreshingly pessimistic teen thriller shot in 26 days during May of 2016, concluding two weeks before the death of co-star Anton Yelchin. Its two protagonists are, to different extents, unfeeling sociopaths. So why is it ultimately such a weirdly affecting watch? Any kind of emotional response seems the exact opposite of what Thoroughbreds should be provoking. But Finley has instilled in this sprightly 90-minute endeavour such a tragic revelation of the total lack of interest in life, provoked by boredom rather than any actual depression or anxiety, experienced by modern day adolescents, that it slowly evolves before one’s eyes into a frightening and upsetting — but deliciously self-aware — parable.

70% of the success of this film is down to casting. Finley takes arguably the two most striking screen presences in their demo (nobody tell Katherine Langford we said that), wide-eyed wonder Olivia Cooke and even-wider-eyed human Owl Anya Taylor-Joy, throws their energy together and lets the friction do the magic. Cooke has, in the space of about 3 weeks, flown to the top of my list of favourite young actresses; she singlehandedly made the vile Ready Player One watchable for two-and-a-half hours, and she channels her inherent likeability into the aggressively, intentionally unlikeable role of Amanda here. Taylor-Joy’s Lily is an old childhood friend, hired to tutor Amanda in her stepdad’s mansion. Amanda has, we soon learn, just murdered her family’s prize stallion. She is also incapable of feeling any emotions. Lily’s stepdad is a big ol’ jerk. You can imagine what happens when the girls start scheming.

Along the way, they encounter/recruit an ambitious drug dealer played by Anton Yelchin. Thoroughbreds is the last new Anton Yelchin film I will ever review, so I’d like to reaffirm what a fucking brilliant performer that man was. It’s utterly heartbreaking to watch him here — the character’s big future plans almost reflecting his own career potentials — two weeks before one of the stupidest, most blameless accidents in recent Hollywood memory. Yelchin’s appearance definitely pushes the film into a territory of feeling, pulling the viewer into a mindset of fatalism vs aspiration, our investment in Amanda and Lily not squandering the lives they’re starting to write off totally.

What’s so appealing about Thoroughbreds’ particular depiction of teenage girls is the almost total lack of social media in their interactions. Facebook and SnapChat are nowhere mentioned. Finley does not overtly blame this culture for their issues; it is a given for the audience that phones and apps are part of the ruinous elixir. The film roots itself in the 2010s in smaller, cleverer ways; Amanda’s constant references to the cliche myth of Steve Jobs. Finley is more interested in how the girls react to old media, they sit and watch obscure 40s movies in Lily’s house and comment on how insincere the actors are being. There is, as the title suggests, a fair amount of horse imagery, but no actual horse appears on screen after the first 20 seconds. The whole film is directed not exactly with urgency, but with an attention to detail that’s unexpected from both a first-timer and for a film of this type. The house, the art, the girls, the costumes are all stunning; but it’s his compositing of shots that really struck me. If the pacing starts to lag in the third act (the acts are literally labelled in this particular film), Erik Friedlander’s score — influenced as much by Birdman as it is by recent Daniel Pemberton soundtracks — keeps the roving camera from getting lost in adoration of minutiae.

There’s a lot to be said for movies of pretty people in pretty locations being smart and interesting — which is what I expected from the poster — but Thoroughbreds has a darker heart that will lend itself to revisiting and reinterpretation. A thoroughly impressive debut feature.