There have been plenty of movies about teens going bad, but “Thoroughbreds” is a different kind of beast. Superficially comparable to “Heathers” (but almost reading like the making of an “American Psycho”), it’s a wickedly funny dark comedy, and an assured debut from first time director Corey Finley, who adapts his own unproduced stage play.
Set in Connecticut in the kind of stereotypically rich communities that Connecticut brings to mind, the story follows two girls (childhood friends) reuniting after years of growing apart. Amanda (Olivia Cooke from “Bates Motel”) has become an outcast following an incident involving a horse; Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy from “The Witch” and “Split”) is the kind of nervous, preppy girl who preps her for the SAT.
The scene is initially awkward until Amanda admits that she feels no emotions — no joy, no anger, no sadness — and hasn’t for some time. As such, she’s developed quite the lie detector, getting Lily to admit that she’s being paid by Amanda’s mom for this meeting and even getting Lily to admit that she’s creeped out and fascinated by Amanda. From there, the awkwardness dissolves as Finley pokes and prods at the relationship between them, revealing shades of privilege and selfishness that turn into a miniature power struggle.
Eventually, it turns into a thriller, as confrontations with Lily’s jerk of a stepdad (Paul Sparks) merge into something darker, culminating in the involvement of a drug dealer named Tim (Anton Yelchin, from “Green Room” and the new “Star Trek” movies).
The performances from the two leads are simply wonderful. Cooke plays Amanda as dry and deadpan, dropping one-liners and showing a remarkable sense of self-awareness. She’s not violent or insane; as she describes it, she just has to work a little harder to seem human. That includes knowing how to fake cry, in a particularly great scene where she teaches Lily her technique. It’s a welcome change from the numerous other ways these things usually go (the stalker thriller “Swimfan” is mentioned once).
Lily, on the other hand, proves just as intriguing, if not more so. Taylor-Joy and Finley slowly poke holes in Lily’s facade of sophistication, hinting at deeper threads of selfishness and entitlement. In some ways, only her actual feelings and sense of morals are holding her back from doing real damage (as Amanda says, “Empathy isn’t [her] strong suit”). It helps as well that Finley refrains from bringing sex into the equation: Lily’s house and their interactions feel appropriately cold and sterile, and there’s never any sense of “dangerous lesbian” or “repressed rich girl” to bring things down, nor are they ever sexualized on screen.
For a first time director, Finley shows a remarkable sense of purpose and craft with the camera. He frequently focuses between foreground and background characters, framing each part of the house immaculately. The shifts into more tense sequences work perfectly as well, especially a later scene in the kitchen with the three mains. Elsewhere, Eric Friedlander’s atonal, unnerving score sets the tone perfectly, and I would be remiss not to mention Yelchin’s chest puffing performance, filmed before his death in 2016 from an accident with his car.
Culminating in an image you aren’t likely to forget, with generous amounts of subtext and some fantastic costuming, “Thoroughbreds” announces a major talent and confirms the abilities of its leads.