With Fantastic Fest having once again descended onto the city of Austin, Texas (now with satellite festivals in New York, Denver, and San Francisco), there comes the inherent trepidation of picking the right film to start things off. While it’s next to impossible to pick a bad film, the first selection invariably sets the tone of how the rest of the festival will play out.
This was made worse when, after driving across town during rush hour, I pulled into the Alamo Drafthouse (the festival’s mothership) only to realize I’d forgotten my badge at home. It’s such a rookie mistake that you’d think this wasn’t my third year covering Fantastic Fest.
Nonetheless, I raced back across town, grabbed my badge, and hustled back to the theater to make it in just in time to see my first choice, a provocatively unconventional character study found at the heart of writer/director Cory Finley’s debut film, Thoroughbreds.
In its opening moments, Thoroughbreds finds two childhood friends who’ve long since lost touch with one-another sit at a table, with the seemingly proper Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) foraging through a textbook while trying to wade through the awkwardness of an unlikely reunion. Her friend, Amanda (Olivia Cooke), reveals to Lily that she’s an emotional blank slate. She goes on to explain that while she might feel hungry and tired on occasion, emotions such as joy, sadness, or even morality, aren’t things that she’s capable of — and is perfectly fine with that.
Having come clean about her emotional void, Amanda wastes little time in trying to pry some truths out of Lily, namely that she knows their time together was secretly a tutoring session set up by Amanda’s mother — and that Lily held out for double her normal pay rate. Amanda knows this because she regularly reads through her mother’s emails, and calls out Lily for trying to proclaim their little study session as nothing but some hang time.
Amanda then goes further, goading Lily into being brutally honest about her feelings toward her. “You’re off-putting and you have a weird smell,” Lily tells her, who immediately seems to retract into an almost reflexive apology, while Amanda stands there unmoved by what she’s heard. Well, the weird smell thing throws her off a bit, but only because she thought she was getting away with showering less. “You’re not,” Lily assures her.
Despite (or because of) their unusual conversation, the two continue to hang out, with Lily abandoning any effort to take payment for tutelage, and the two form what appears to be a conventional friendship. Though Amanda still seems keen on learning more about Lily, particularly her relationship with her stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). Amanda believes Lily hates him, and begins to flirt with the idea of murdering him.
Lily is appalled by the suggestion, at least at first, but slowly comes around to the idea. As Amanda suggests that the two would need alibis if they were to go through with it, they enlist the unwilling help of Tim (the late Anton Yelchin), a washed up lowlife bides his time selling drugs to high school kids while he entertains his plans of ‘running the game’ inside of the next five or ten years.
With their plan set in motion, tensions start to escalate while it’s revealed bit by bit that the two girls might have more going on than they originally thought.
Originally conceived of as a play by Finley, the performances of both Cooke and Taylor-Joy absolutely make the film. It’s like watching a cat-and-mouse game, but as their mutual manipulation goes on, it’s impossible to figure out which is which. Throw in their shared deadpan and discontent, their performances vaguely echo those given by Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. Add to that the electrifying appearance of Yelchin, who’s forceful portrayal not only balances the understated delivery of the two leads, but serves as a disheartening reminder of the talent that was lost last summer.
Part character study, part mystery, Thoroughbreds is a deeply engrossing experience, and a note-perfect beginning to this year’s Fantastic Fest.