Where in the world did Cory Finley come from? With his feature film directorial debut, Thoroughbreds, the 28-year-old playwright has created an astonishingly impressive black comedy. If features like this are to be the norm for him then Finley is definitely a person to watch. In addition, his film’s leading ladies, Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), are talented actresses who command the same attention. What that means is that Thoroughbreds (a favorite back at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival) is a viciously delightful indie that has the look and feel of Heathers, Jawbreaker and Mean Girls.

Set in the world of wealth and privilege, Taylor-Joy is Lily, a boarding school student who’s as emotional as one gets. On the surface she has everything going for her, but not everything is as rosy as it seems. Her estranged childhood friend, Amanda (Cooke), is the opposite. Amanda has no emotion (“I don’t have any feelings, ever.”) and is in trouble for performing a violent and senseless act. That act has resulted in Amanda seeing a therapist and, as a way to help develop her social shortcomings, Amanda’s mother (Kaili Vernoff) sets up tutoring sessions with Lily. The tutoring sessions are more like play dates, but in this case Lily and Amanda are altogether passive-aggressively playing with morbid themes and ideas.

Finley hints that Lily and Amanda share a past – the two were childhood friends who’ve since drifted apart. But their reunion brings about uncomfortable truths, the biggest one being that Lily hates her stiff and condescending stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). Mark has the look of a guy who earns more money than he deserves (and knows what to do with) and, considering he married Lily’s mom (Francie Swift), is all about image. With their marriage, Lily is the part of the package Mark is willing to throw away at his earliest convenience. “After that, you’re off my payroll,” is uttered by Mark towards a particularly hurt and upset Lily, a prime example of how icy their relationship is.

With that, it’s interesting to note how Finley sees relationships (at least during this feature). All relationships are transactions and the value of each relationship depends on how much both parties are willing to put in.

Amanda and Lily are intent on offing Mark simply because he’s insufferable. That’s obvious, but that angle is what makes Thoroughbreds fascinating. After Amanda calmly asks, “Do you ever think about just killing him?” things become very interesting, especially since Lily was initially offended enough to cut contact from Amanda. Of course, Lily changed her mind and soon the pair is out recruiting a dishwashing drug dealer (Anton Yelchin, in his final role) to do the dirty work for them. Although Yelchin’s Tim is clearly older than Lily and Amanda, it’s interesting to note he’s not nearly as polished, put-together or intelligent as the duo. Tim is a lot of empty talk and is a subtle source of comic relief. At the same time he is the audience’s surrogate – Tim sees just how demented and dangerous Lily and Amanda are. Either way, as good an actor Yelchin was, Finley does very well to use his talents as a measuring stick to Taylor-Joy’s and Cooke’s talents.

At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Thoroughbreds considering it’s about two white teenage girls with silver spoons in their mouths, crumpling at the first sign of hardship. But Finley’s feature is more than that – it’s a film whose message is that even with everything at one’s disposal it’s still possible to become a bad person. Finley also does well to dig deep in the minds of both Lily and Amanda, and he does so with impressive dialogue, interesting cinematography (Lyle Vincent, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) and a fitting score (Erik Friedlander).

Admittedly, Thoroughbreds is not for everyone (during my screening at least two people walked out). Its tone is too grim for most, especially with audiences likely thinking it would be similar to Mean Girls. Most would have to work to understand and appreciate its humor, but that’s what sets Thoroughbreds apart from other teen-centric films. Nonetheless, this confident offering from Cory Finley is a sardonic gem.

4 stars out of 5

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