Review – Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbreds is a buzzy little independent film from first-time writer and director Cory Finley.  Catching my attention, however, is the one-two punch of the headlining duo consisting of Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke.  Since her first feature film role in 2016’s The Witch, Taylor-Joy has been a lead in every film in which she has appeared, never once settling for a supporting role, nor needing to.  Her highest-profile film, so far, has been M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, though that will likely change in 2019 when she takes on the role of Colossus’s little sister Magik in Fox’s New Mutants.  I chose her as one of my Top 5 Faces of the Future in 2016 and I stand by that assessment.  Olivia Cooke was one of the best parts on A&E’s “Bates Motel” and is just a few weeks away from making a huge splash in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.  Seeing these two play off of each other was bound to be a joy (no pun intended) and I wasn’t about to miss it if I could help it. (Also of note is that Thoroughbreds is Anton Yelchin’s final film, after tragically passing away in 2016 following a freak accident involving his vehicle in his own driveway.)

Taylor-Joy and Cooke play upper-class teenagers Amanda and Lily, respectively. Amanda has a history of displaying self-professed schizophrenic tendencies, proclaiming herself unable to feel emotions. Meanwhile, Lily is struggling with the loss of her father and her inability to accept the fact that her mother has moved on with a new husband Mark (Paul Sparks) while Lily can’t seem to move on, at all. After rekindling their long-lost friendship, the two girls enlist the assistance of the emotionally stunted Tim (Yelchin) to remove Mark from Lily’s life and allow her to continue to avoid any sort of emotional growth and acceptance.

Though supported by other strong actors – including Yelchin – this film belongs entirely to Taylor-Joy and Cooke. Both are tremendous talents and, here, they each get to display a new subtlety to their craft that audiences haven’t seen from them before. When Cooke’s Amanda proclaims that she is incapable of feeling emotions, it might be tempting for one to think that playing such a role would make her job as an actor pretty simple. But there are moments when Amanda’s claim is overtly challenged and the viewer can see in Cooke’s micro-expressions and body language that Amanda’s claim may or may not be a front – whether for her own benefit or the benefit of those around her.

Taylor-Joy’s Lily, however, begins the film as one girl and finishes as another. Lily is directly influenced and informed by Amanda. Lily feels lost and out of control, leading to an impression of helplessness. She then recalls the perceived strength and independence she once knew in her former friend Amanda and makes the choice to reach out, hoping Amanda’s steely resolve and cool head will rub off and assist Lily in her efforts to cope with the new life she never wanted.

Along with the performances, the character work is hands down the most interesting component of Thoroughbreds. In fact, the film essentially serves as a character study, dissecting the two girls as if they’re on a psychiatrist’s couch. As each girl slowly and reluctantly reveals more of themselves as a necessity in achieving their goals, a clear and surprising picture begins to form and a perceptive audience will come to realize that a clever sleight of hand has occurred right in front of their eyes.

However, outside of the character work, Finley’s inexperience as both a director and a screenwriter are quite apparent. I can’t speak for Finley, but I assume that much of the script is intended to be funny, as he appears to be aiming for a dark comedy of sorts. But the placement of the humor, in combination with the context and Finley’s direction squash the laughs before they have a chance to fully develop. The timing of Cooke and Taylor-Joy succeed in helping some of the film to almost be funny. But, since the actors’ ultimate goal is to be authentic, then a choice must be made. They make the correct one, but Finley puts them in an awkward position by forcing such a choice.

The film also suffers from severe pacing issues. I understand, as I stated above, that the film is a character study but many of the pertinent, defining moments in the lives of the two leads are referenced but not seen (this is film. Show, don’t tell.) while much of the first half of the film is mostly irrelevant fluff or, if not irrelevant, then at least dragged out. It’s almost as if Finley had an idea for a script but wasn’t sure how to stretch it into a feature-length story. Truly, the narrative is largely uneventful and is primarily made watchable and entertaining solely by the efforts of Taylor-Joy and Cooke.

As much as I enjoy Taylor-Joy and Cooke, I was profoundly disappointed in Thoroughbreds. I walked in expecting to love it and even thinking it might have a shot at being my favorite film of the year, so far. I walked out thinking it should have been a short film. The cast and character magic are great. The execution of it all is lifeless and lacking. I just wanted more. I wanted more engaging dialogue. I wanted more memorable moments. I wanted the kind of wit and intelligence that is typically found in independent cinema. And I didn’t want to ultimately dislike a film starring either Taylor-Joy or Cooke. Finley hasn’t made a bad film in Thoroughbreds; it just feels like an incomplete film. He, like his movie, has promise and he will likely improve. And for a first effort, it could be much worse. But, at the end of the day, Thoroughbreds is like a lackluster online date who had a fantastically misleading profile picture.

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