Two upper-class teenage girls in suburban Connecticut rekindle their unlikely friendship after years of growing apart. Together, they hatch a plan to solve both of their problems-no matter what the cost.
Director: Cory Finley
Writer: Cory Finley
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke, Anton Yelchin
Closed Captioning and Descriptive Narration Available.
While the Competition titles may have fallen flat this year, NEXT, a portion of the Sundance Film Festival that has produced adventurous, breathtaking works in the past, delivered yet again.
Cory Finley’s NEXT entry, the vicious comedy/thriller “Thoroughbreds,” is the most stunning debut of this year’s festival, an announcement of a major new talent that is almost as vital as when Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” shocked audiences two years ago or Trey Edward Shults shook viewers with “Krisha” down at SXSW. It’s on that level in terms of debut—not only remarkable in terms of what it offers but what it says about what to expect from its writer/director in the future. Stylish and smart, “Thoroughbreds” is going to have a loyal audience when it eventually gets released.
Amanda (Olivia Cooke) arrives at the mansion occupied by classmate and sorta-friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is going to tutor the young lady. Immediately, Finley amplifies tension through his visual choices. We follow Amanda around the house while she’s waiting for Lily, her soulless eyes taking everything in. Something is not quite right with Amanda. When Lily, who seems to be more chipper and “normal,” tries to get through to Amanda, we realize the depths of Amanda’s emotionless attitude. She claims to not feel normal things like joy or guilt. But, oh, she’s gotten really good at pretending, even showing Lily how to fake-cry. But she doesn’t really feel it. And Lily begins to realize that perhaps she doesn’t either.
This lack of empathy or emotion becomes an issue when Lily’s cruel stepfather Mark (a vicious turn from Paul Sparks) pushes his stepdaughter too far. Amanda suggests that they do what most people do with lame horses—they put it down. Who would miss him? The girls bring in a local petty drug dealer (a fantastic performance from Anton Yelchin, one of his last) into the plan, and, well, things don’t go quite as well as you may expect.
“Thoroughbred” is a mesmerizing balance of chaos and control. The film looks amazing, reflecting the opulent lifestyles of its characters, but it’s a beauty that hides an ugly core. Finley’s direction is incredibly refined and calculated, especially for a first-time director, in that it never cribs directly from other auteurs (which often happens with debut thrillers) but instead announces a fresh, original voice. It’s a voice that’s not only willing to take rewarding visual chances but directs his four leads to arguably the best work of their individual careers to date. Cooke finds a chilling center to this character that I didn’t think she had; Taylor-Joy conveys so much internal monologue through her riveting eyes; Yelchin grounds the entire film as the most relatable character; and Sparks perfectly captures a man who thinks so little of his spoiled stepdaughter that he doesn’t ever consider that he should fear her. “Thoroughbreds” might be the most finely-tuned film of Sundance 2017—a puzzle of a film in which every piece fits perfectly.
-BRIAN TALLERICO, ROGEREBERT.COM