One of the greatest black comedies in cinematic history is 1988’s Heathers. From the “corn nuts” death scenes to Christian Slater blowing himself up outside a pep rally, it’s one of the funniest looks at the extremes of teenage life ever depicted on film. It’s also one that Hollywood could probably never get away with again, what with the constant threat of people shooting each other in school. The film’s been made into a musical, and there’s a TV show coming out soon, but I get the feeling that neither really captures the spirit of the original.
Thirty years later, however, we have what is likely the best replication we could hope to find in a movie, with Thoroughbreds, which debuted at Sundance last year and finally gets its wide release now. Directed by first-timer Cory Finley, and co-produced by Oscar winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants), the film has the best written dialogue of any movie so far this year, and is carried by two amazing performances by its young leads.
Anya Taylor-Joy (Split) stars as Lily, a posh rich girl in Connecticut home from boarding school, who reunites with her childhood friend, Amanda, played by Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, as well as the upcoming Ready Player One). Amanda is a self-admitted sociopath, completely incapable of human emotions, and she needs Lily to be her tutor (her mother paid her) for the upcoming SATs, as an incident with a horse forced her to leave school.
The two haven’t been close friends since Lily went to boarding school after the death of her father. During their lessons, Amanda meets Lily’s step-father Mark (Paul Sparks of Boardwalk Empire), who looks like he skydived directly into a mid-life crisis. Lily is clearly uncomfortable around him, and he’s obviously overbearing, but nothing is explicitly stated about their relationship. After another awkward encounter, Amanda asks Lily if she’s ever considered killing Mark, leading the two of them to plot murder.
Taylor-Joy and Cooke play off each other so well, it’s amazing that they’re so young (21 and 24 respectively). There’s a natural chemistry between them, and their wit is amazing. This is down to them and to Finley’s script, which is full of biting humor that had me rolling throughout. Just ask my girlfriend. I was constantly burrowing my head into her shoulder so that I didn’t laugh out loud too much. The girls’ dynamic works to such great effect, especially as the characters develop and we see that it may be Lily who is truly crazy. It also helps that the movie goes to extreme lengths NOT to sexualize the girls in any way. The film, divided into four chapters, shows the progression of their plan and the shifting of their friendship dynamic, with each chapter punctuated by a brilliantly executed character reveal that grants greater context to the story as well.
There’s one other performance worthy of mention, but sadly for the wrong reason. As the girls formulate their plan, they enlist the aid of Tim, a local drug dealer, to be their hitman. Tim is played by the late Anton Yelchin in his final role. Looking like a strung out Elijah Wood, Yelchin plays the role with a charming edge and a curious degree of logic. It’s a tremendous performance, worthy of awards consideration, and it’s just another sad reminder of what a great talent we lost when Yelchin tragically died two years ago. A lot of people knew him from the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films, but between this and the indie horror film Green Room, I really miss this guy.
Beyond the plot, there are some superlative technical elements, especially considering this is a first feature. The bulk of the action takes place in Lily’s home, which is very well appointed. The decor of each room feels like a different location entirely, and helps to set the tone for each of the film’s chapters. It’s also just really cool to watch sociopathic teenagers watching classic movies while practicing how to cry on cue.
Secondly, the sound design is amazing. From the very first scene, where Amanda wanders around Lily’s house – finding various clues about Lily’s real situation – it gets you. A solitary drum intrudes on her walking, an ominous warning about a threat that doesn’t really exist, but it perfectly sets the tone. Another great example is Mark’s rowing machine, which he uses every night before bed. It drives Lily figuratively (and possibly literally) insane to hear it grinding above her constantly, and it’s a wonderful little sound bed that underscores the rising tension between the girls and their target.
Seriously people, see this film if you can. It’s so wonderfully dark and unpredictable, and it’s anchored by three amazing performances from some wonderful young actors (sadly one of whom has already left us). If this is Cory Finley’s first film, it makes sense that Faxon and Rash would get behind it, because it’s absolutely outstanding. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I rate next? Which of the girls is the true sociopath? Did you ever plot murder through ennui? Let me know! (Except maybe the murder part – best keep that to yourself)