A Heavenly Creatures riff, though with much less imagination and far thinner psychology, Thoroughbreds centers on the uneasy relationship between a pair of affluent, Connecticut teenagers. Amanda (Olivia Cooke) claims she is unable to feel emotions such as joy or sadness; Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) pretends her life is perfect, despite an increasingly antagonistic relationship with her stepfather (Paul Sparks). The two girls were close friends when they were younger, until a violent incident separated them. Thoroughbreds traces their cautious reunion a few years later.
Actually, I’m not all that confident of the timeline. The debut feature of writer-director Cory Finley, Thoroughbreds is wispily constructed. It’s hard to believe much of this in terms of time, place, or character. Amanda, in particular, comes across as a conceit (“What if a teen girl was a sociopath?”), despite a few compelling moments from Cooke. Taylor-Joy’s Lily should be the audience stand-in, but instead she’s just as much of a cipher. Only Anton Yelchin, in one of his last roles before his accidental death, really makes the screen come alive, bringing a skeevy yet sympathetic vibe to the part of a local dropout who gets roped into the young women’s increasingly dangerous circle.
Finley, as director, does display a flair for clever camerawork. Thoroughbreds is anchored by a series of sustained single takes, often gliding through the museum-like mansions in which these people live. There are also a few focus pulls that give otherwise mundane moments a sudden sharpness. Thoroughbreds has a brazenness that’s promising, then, even if it also seems to be a bit too taken with its characters’ amorality. The movie works hard to make your eyes open wide, but doesn’t seem to realize that a squinting introspection can have its own sort of edge.