Thoroughbreds

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 Thoroughbreds

Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) were BFFs back in the sixth grade but grew apart as they turned into their teens. Now, with college looming on the horizon, Amanda needs help and Lily agrees to tutor her former best friend. Being grown up, though, brings its own set of problems in “Thoroughbreds.”

Robin:
First-time helmer-scribe Cory Finley creates an unusual coming of age story with its two pampered protagonists, Lily and Amanda. Amanda shows up on the doorstep of Lily’s parents opulent mansion, there to be tutored for the SATs by the scion of the house. Weirdly, Amanda’s mom made a deal to pay the obviously well-off Lily $200/hour to take the job. Amanda, of course, wonders why her old friend needs the cash. Then, we meet Lily’s stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), and we see the cracks in the family façade.

Amanda is from a broken home, a loner and self-proclaimed person without emotions and can turn tears on and off (doing the “technique”) at will. Lily, on the surface, is the proper spoiled daughter in a privileged family, but there is a dark side. The resentment she feels toward her stepfather is palpable, but kept in check. Then, Amanda arrives on the scene.  This is where “Thoroughbreds” finds its métier as Amanda proves to be the catalyst for possible mayhem. I’ll leave it at that.

Newcomer Cory Finlay crafts a YA tale that will appeal to younger audiences – tweenies – who will appreciate the rebellious spirit of its lead characters. And, stepfather Mark is so annoying, mainly off-screen, that you almost sympathize with the Lily and Amanda. Almost. I give it a C+.

Laura:
Amanda (Olivia Cooke, TV's 'Bates Motel') arrives at a grand home in Westchester and wanders around, noting an envelope labelled Lily and stuffed with cash lying on atop a newel post.  She and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, "The Witch," "Split") were once friends, but a horrific incident that has labelled Amanda anti-social with schizophrenic tendencies has made Amanda a local pariah. Amanda nonchalantly refutes Lily's lie that she isn't being paid to tutor her and notes the unease with which she relates to her stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks, "Midnight Special," TV's 'Waco'). One suggestion later and the two girls who couldn't be more different are joined by their background as "Thoroughbreds."

First time writer/director Cory Finley wows with his technical prowess, cinematographer Lyle Vincent's striking compositions and a provocative sound design, the film's greatest asset, giving Finley's work psychological edge.  But this dark thriller, the type of fare I'm usually drawn to, isn't as satisfying storywise.  Amanda, with her "Equus"-like background, tells us she feels nothing, demonstrating her ability to cry on cue, yet we see the concern on her face when Lily begins to sink in the family pool.  Likewise, Lily is supposed to 'feel too much' as she's being crushed beneath the abusive weight of her trophy wife mother's (Francie Swift, "Cop Out," "All Good Things") marriage to Mark, but as played by Taylor-Joy, she seems cold as ice.  The film crackles with possibility then fails to leave us much to mull over.

Take the character of Tim (the late Anton Yelchin), for example.  He's a blue collar drug dealer in a wealthy enclave, played by the two protagonists, yet left relatively unharmed.  What is his purpose other than economic contrast?  Take him out of the film and nothing much changes.  We're given no good reason why Lily's parents would wish to send her to a school for those with severe behavioral problems - like Amanda - when any tony boarding school would do.

Cooke and Taylor-Joy keep the set up simmering, Cooke's unfiltered observations crashing into Taylor-Joy's carefully constructed social niceties.  Amanda's soliloquy after Lily quietly informs her 'I saw the pictures' is tense and harrowing.  These characters are intriguing, but only until they decide to act.  At that point they become far less interesting, the skill of the filmmaking taking up the slack.  There is more foreboding in the sound of Mark's rowing machine reverberating through his manse than in the actions of the actors.

Grade:  B-
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