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Thoroughbreds
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by Jay Seaver

"Teen noir stripped to its basics."
4 stars

The teenage girls in "Thoroughbreads" watch an old movie or three over the course of their own film, and, boy, would Anya Taylor-Joy be looking at a heck of a line in femmes fatales if there were still the same sort of regular demand for them. Her performance as a potentially-monstrous teenager is delicious, begging to be inserted into a film that has higher stakes or which gives her someone to pull down from a much higher pedestal.

She's playing Lily, who used to hang out with Amanda (Olivia Cooke) before transferring to boarding school a year and a half ago. Nobody is talking to Amanda these days, but Amanda doesn't mind - indeed, she says she can't, that she's unable to feel emotion but can fake it well enough to get by, and she that knows Lily's just tutoring her for the SATs because her mom is paying. As much as this confession initially freaks Lily out, she quickly comes to like having a friend for whom she doesn't have to keep up a sweet, placid exterior - at least, until Amanda picks up on the enmity between Lily and her stepfather (Paul Sparks) and bluntly raises the option of killing him.

Writer/director Cory Finley has Amanda spill that she's not capable of feeling emotion early, and there are times when it makes what Olivia Cooke does a little less interesting; she can be flat in her delivery and the audience will basically take it as given, with any display of emotion immediately recognized as a technical exercise even when the script doesn't have her actually giving an explanation on how she fakes crying. Amanda's stated lack of feeling distances the audience from her in the same way it distances her from other people, something the film perhaps waits too long to address, especially since it serves to camouflage the little things Cooke does right, principal among them being flat but never really cold. Finley is careful never to describe her as selfish or a sociopath in hiding, and Cooke is often quite good at finding the delivery that's neither robotic nor obviously inflected.

That puts Anya Taylor-Joy in the position to potentially fume and emote enough for the pair of them combined, and there are moments where she does, but more often, she'll let hard lines form under what's still sort of a soft face or put acid in her voice when Cooke has just maybe expressed a sort of vague curiosity. She often seems impressively unafraid to be unlikable, hitting the selfish side of immaturity when the standard take would be innocence. Often, Finley will recognize that Lily is interesting not so much because she is more complex than she looks but because she's actually simpler than one has maybe come to expect, even if she's got a brain that is capable of grasping complexities.

A good part of the point of this movie is arguably that the whole situation is less complicated than what one expects. While the audience is waiting for a story that can be the plot while these two teenaged girls who are detached enough to think of murder as something to be considered practically, unless they perhaps can find what's missing from themselves in each other or see the other's particular ruthlessness as something different than themselves plays out in the background, Finley is just letting that be the movie rather than the underlying theme. It's unorthodox, but the filmmakers pull it off well - a lot of scenes with just the pair of them play out in entertaining fashion, and the audience can enjoy them for what they are without feeling the need to fit them into something else or make them serve a higher purpose. With Cooke and Taylor-Joy do much of the heavy lifting, a tight supporting cast can just play their parts without having to represent something - Francie Swift and Paul Sparks certainly seem like influences as Lily's mother and stepfather, but they don't need to explain her, nor does Kaili Vernoff as Amanda's mother. Anton Yelchin's final role is an entertaining, reactive foil, and it's telling that while Lily will lean on him for his past sexual misconduct, that's not really a factor in the actual action. What Lily and Amanda want and what they can do comes entirely from who they are, not how someone desires them physically.

"Thoroughbreds" works while the audience is watching it, and holds up while looking back. Could it stand to expand what we see of the girls' world and motivations a bit? Oh, yes; even once one sees what's going on, it still often seems like an exercise rather than a genuine thriller. But Taylor-Joy is great and both Olivia Cooke and the much-missed Anton Yelchin hold their ends up too. And, for all that the story is kind of generic, I'd be awfully interested to seeing the two stars and the filmmaker peek in on what the girls are up to a few years down the road.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=31747&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/29/17 06:12:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2017 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  09-Mar-2018

UK
  N/A

Australia
  09-Mar-2018


Directed by
  Cory Finley

Written by
  Cory Finley

Cast
  Olivia Cooke
  Anya Taylor-Joy
  Anton Yelchin
  Paul Sparks
  Francie Swift
  Kaili Vernoff



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