The setup of the new film Thoroughbreds is as follows: Two estranged childhood friends — one a diagnosed sociopath and the other a rich girl ruled by her intense emotions — reunite as teenagers. The sociopath, Amanda (Olivia Cooke), has become a pariah in her wealthy, white Connecticut town following some vague but disturbing incident involving a dead horse. Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), the rich girl, is home from Andover and has been enlisted to tutor Amanda. After an awkward first meeting, they start to enjoy each other’s company. Lily confesses that she hates her stepdad, Mark (Paul Sparks), who doesn’t hide his contempt for her, either. One night, while the girls are tipsy, Amanda suggests that they kill him.
If you’ve seen a lot of teen movies, you might think you know where Thoroughbreds is going from here. But if you pay attention, you’ll see that writer/director Corey Finley’s debut feature has something very different in mind. Amanda isn’t your typical big-screen teenage psycho — take her taste in role models. She’s obsessed with the possibly sociopathic visionary behind Apple, musing that she might “skip college and Steve Jobs my way through life.” According to her shrink, Amanda has antisocial personality disorder with schizoid tendencies. “I don’t have any feelings, ever,” she tells Lily. “Joy, guilt — I really don’t have any of those.” Instead, she mimics the emotional responses of those around her, employing a detailed “technique” to summon tears when appropriate. Lily is disturbed to learn that, when her father died, years ago, Amanda wasn’t sobbing along with her out of empathy—she was using the technique. As she explains, “I just have to work a little harder than everyone else to be good.”
Thoroughbreds cobbles together elements straight out of the teen cult canon: Amanda’s casual attitude toward murder brings to mind Christian Slater’s bloodthirsty J.D., from Heathers. Lily appears to be a smart, sweet, perfect princess, like Jawbreaker’s quickly killed-off “teen dream,” Liz Purr (Charlotte Ayanna). Together, they can look like Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and Tai (Brittany Murphy) from Clueless or the Plastics and Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) Mean Girls. Their plot to murder a meddling parent comes straight out of Heavenly Creatures, which casts Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as two 1950s high-school girls whose friendship-turned-romance scandalizes their families.
But Thoroughbreds subverts these tropes and ends up with a narrative that’s somehow even darker than its forerunners. In any other movie, Amanda would sink her teeth into Lily and their bond would metastasize into something more than a lukewarm friendship of convenience. It never does. The girls plot and fight and spend idle hours together, but Thoroughbreds doesn’t build tension by making them lovers, or even codependent best buddies. From the moment they reunite, their relationship is purely transactional; as we soon find out, Amanda’s mother is paying Lily a lot of money to spend time with her daughter. They keep hanging out because Amanda is bored and isolated, because Lily is intrigued by the possibility that Amanda is capable of murdering someone, and because each of these apparent opposites is learning vital survival skills from the other.
Practically every great film about teens, from Rebel Without a Cause to Dazed and Confused to Blue Is the Warmest Color, incorporates some kind of romantic storyline. Tim (Anton Yelchin, in one of his final roles), a much-older drug dealer and petty criminal whose predilection for underage girls draws him into Amanda and Lily’s plot, initially seems like a candidate for the role of “ill-advised love interest.” But Thoroughbreds is curiously devoid of sexual energy. This is a crisp, cold film about emotions and their absence. Hormones would only muddy the waters.
Finley’s sleight of hand is to distract viewers with recognizable elements of teen drama — like Tim’s creepiness, Amanda’s odd affect, the unpredictability of her friendship with Lily — as he drops increasingly bold clues that he’s about to upend each and every one of them. We get further wrapped up in the movie’s tart, self-aware dialogue — Tim refers to Amanda as “fuckin’ Swimfan over there” — whose tone lands in the same territory as Clueless and Heathers, but never encroaches upon Juno levels of twee.
All of this keeps us from paying much attention to Taylor-Joy’s brittle, porcelain-skinned Lily, a typical poor little rich girl who’s still mourning her long-dead father and smarting from the cruelty of the man her mother replaced him with. Sad and unmoored as she is, her defining trait is a potent form of entitlement — garden-variety teenage narcissism fortified by physical beauty and extreme class privilege. But Lily isn’t a cartoonish, teen-movie “mean girl.” That she comes across as a slightly exaggerated version of a regular high-schooler is, I think, the point.
Teen movies tend to moralize without drawing much of a connection between the pressurized, claustrophobic realm of high school and life beyond it. Even the cult classics are essentially didactic, with every archetype getting the reward or punishment they karmically deserve. But Thoroughbreds resists a morally tidy resolution, sending viewers home to queasily contemplate what Finley, a former playwright, is saying about us. He’s got more universal themes on his mind, telling Filmmaker magazine, that the film is his attempt “to say something about the morally insulating effects of privilege, and about how manipulation is woven into the day-to-day reality of capitalistic society.”
Plenty of reviewers have likened Thoroughbreds to Heathers, and to be fair, the film’s marketing leans into the comparisons. The trailer quotes a review that imprecisely describes the film as “American Psycho meets Heathers.” Thoroughbreds even glommed on to the hype surrounding Paramount Network’s awful Heathers reboot, sponsoring an online preview of the pilot that drew enough ire to get the show delayed indefinitely. There’s something hilariously appropriate about a teen movie that critiques privilege unintentionally sabotaging a teen TV show whose pilot Breitbartishly treats being a rich white person as a revolutionary act.
But when Finley talks about the films that inspired his debut, they’re not teen touchstones. Instead, he citesThe Shining and classic noirs like Double Indemnity and Strangers on a Train. His cinematographer, Lyle Vincent, shouts out the Coen brothers and Citizen Kane. There are disorienting shots that call to mind Stanley Kubrick’s famous Steadicam sequences, as the camera pursues individual characters like some unseen monster. One scene shifts seamlessly from a closeup of Lily to a deep-focus shot of Mark behind her, in an exchange so tense, it’s actually a worthy use of a technique popularized by Kane. The film isn’t instantly dated by a pop soundtrack or costumes ripped from a Seventeen spread, a choice that seems intended to prevent it from aging into a nostalgia trip.
Marketing aside, Thoroughbreds is a teen movie that doesn’t care about being a teen movie. The ideas that underlie its plot, about capitalism and narcissism and the difference between having no emotions and having no moral compass, aren’t veiled guidelines for becoming a good person. Finley doesn’t bother to attack teen tropes — he just ignores them. That freedom makes the film, and its genuinely shocking twists, feel effortless. It turns out that the smartest way to subvert genre conventions is to pretend they don’t exist.