by Hope Madden
Directing his first feature, Cory Finley adapts his play about teenage girls planning a murder. It’s a buddy picture, a coming-of-age tale, Superbad, if you will. No, not really.
Finley draws us into the palatial estate where Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) reluctantly tutors Amanda (Olivia Cooke). The two were friends in middle school, but that was a lifetime ago. Now seniors, Amanda is an outcast, having personally euthanized her family’s suffering thoroughbred horse.
Lily has her own problems.
Wicked, surprising, unapologetic, cynical and buoyed by flawless performances, Thoroughbreds is a mean little treat.
Amanda doesn’t feel. She’s not a sociopath, exactly. She just doesn’t feel anything—joy, sorrow, regret, fear. Empathy.
Lily, who tears up quickly and is forever retracting statements or pausing to perform the correct social cue at the acceptable time, isn’t sure whether she relates to or envies Amanda’s plight.
Not that Amanda sees it as a plight, exactly. She doesn’t care, does she?
Cooke mystifies, her observant but emotionally disinterested performance a magical thing to witness. Amanda has nearly perfected the art of pretending to be normal, pretending to care.
The fact that Lily can see the advantage of this is what sets this coming-of-age tale apart from others. Because, yes, from her perch inside the mansion, Lily is coming of age. Just not like the rest of us.
If Cooke is great, Taylor-Joy is better. An actor who wears her vulnerability in her every expression, she gives great depth to this character on the precipice of adulthood, learning, as she must, that to prosper in her world you need to rid yourself of human emotions and replace them with acceptably false facsimiles.
In the way that Oliver Stone, by way of Gordon Gecko, proselytized that greed is good, Finley uses Lily and Amanda to suggest that empathy is bad.
Their ultimate foil, the societal underling as disposable to their class as an animal—a horse, even—is Anton Yelchin, in his final role. Digging deep into an underwritten character and turning up more authenticity and personality than Finley can fit onscreen, Yelchin’s pathetic loser offers all the humanity lacking from this pristine world.
It’s a fascinating look at how the other class comes of age, blackly comedic and biting.