“It’s only weird if you make it weird,” Anya-Taylor Joy’s character Lily tells Anton Yelchin’s Tim in the final stretch of “Thoroughbreds.” Lily’s specifically referring to a murder plot that involved her, Tim and Amanda, Lily’s tutoring subject turned killing coach. But Lily’s carefree declaration to Tim could also illustrate the worhtwhile but uncomfortable experience of watching “Thoroughbreds”, a film whose awkward silences and slow dialogue reveal darker truths than light conversation ever could.
Conceived by first-time director and writer Cory Finley, “Thoroughbreds” treads the trail of satire but ends up grazing on the borders of some of film’s finest psychological thrillers and teen comedies. It has more of the “parents suck” vibe of “The Breakfast Club” than “Heathers,” and less “Fatal Attraction” but more “The Usual Suspects.” “Thoroughbreds” borrows from the best but manages to have a distinct personality.
That’s owed to Lily and Amanda, characters designed to initially evoke eye rolls: Before they become complex, Lily and Amanda really are just over-privileged girls from Connecticut. Lily silently wallows about her curt step-dad Mark (Paul Sparks) in his multi-million dollar home, while the overwhelmingly neutral Amanda must find the energy to survive the relentless boredom of a $200 tutoring session with Lily.
But the girls bond through breath-holding contests in swimming pools and late viewings of classic movies, with Lily revealing that she hates her step dad after Amanda’s verbal probing. What starts off as a joke becomes a full-fledged scheme to murder Mark, with Lily and Amanda now blood sisters in a fashionable, sociopathic sorority.
It’s through Lily’ and Amanda’s relationship that ‘Thoroughbreds” finds the room to gallop to greatness. While Amanda is depicted as a burden and a bad influence on Lily, her supposed lack of emotions make her able to empathize far better than Lily ever could. Her emotionless state could be exaggerated if not completely false, as we don’t see Amanda ever take any of the medication she says she’s on. Lily aptly compares Amanda to a bizarre YouTube video, something we don’t know is wholly honest, but that doesn’t stop us from watching with uninterrupted fascination.
Lily manages to break through Amanda’s magnetic force of fascination to become the most intriguing character in the film, mainly because of her stepdaddy-daughter dueling with Mark. Whether its the smell of Lily’s cigarette or the sound of Mark’s throbbing row machine, Mark and Lily manage to annoy each other on every sensory level. Still, he really isn’t that bad, and his comment that Lily only sees him and other people as flickering stars in her own universe hits the nail right on the horse’s head. It’s how Lily internalizes Mark’s perceived wrongdoing and imagined errors that end up defining her fate.
They’re commendable performances from Joy and Cooke, fleshed-out characters who omit the common teen movie tropes, except for the ones they happily adopt. Yelchin is also great as Tim, a 20-something drug dealer reluctantly pulled into this scheme after a statutory rape charge left his social life dead. Tim accuses the girls of being spoiled, as they haven’t had to “struggle” like he did. But the three’s carefully-crafted alibis and hazy justification of their criminal conspiracy only serves as evidence of their inability to take control over their own lives and mistakes.
“Thoroughbreds” is a smart thriller, one that doesn’t throw needless puzzles or overly verbose dialogue in our way to generate some faux sense of quality. The ending is well-intentioned but unsatisfying, feeling like a leftover of a first script draft instead of the worthwhile conclusion we craved. But Finley captures our attention and dances with our senses and emotions in “Thoroughbreds,” even as his mares remain perfectly still.