Thoroughbreds is a weak installment in the genre of murderous teenage girls that cannot escape from beneath the shadow of its influences.
The desire to see teenage girls portrayed as monsters has given way to some fascinating works of art including Heathers, Jennifer’s Body, and The Virgin Suicides. For decades, films about teenage girls have gone the way of hyperbole, leaning into the darkest, most wicked storytelling elements. Thoroughbreds continues this legacy, delivering a twisted tale of youthful violence and narcissism.
Written and directed by Cory Finley, Thoroughbreds tells the story of two teenage girls – Lily and Amanda – childhood friends who renew their friendship under a set of rather peculiar circumstances. Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) lives a picturesque life in an upscale mansion while attending a prestigious boarding school; her future is brighter than ever. On the other hand, Amanda (Olivia Cooke) fancies herself a social outcast devoid of real emotion, a trait that compels her to isolate herself even further.
Amanda and Lily’s friendship quickly turns to murderous fantasies as the girls make an enemy out of Lily’s stepfather. The film is a vicious tale of attitude, manipulation, violence, and deceit. It contains all the trappings of a great film, but it’s ultimately rather inert, failing to capitalize on its conceit in any meaningful or entertaining ways.
Despite Finley’s eye for stylistic flourishes, there’s relatively little by way of substance in Thoroughbreds. In the first half of the film, this superficiality seems purposeful, as though it’s a veneer intended to hide something more significant. Yet by the time the other shoe drops, there’s an unshakable sense of anticlimax. Ultimately, it’s clear that Finley’s vision for this story and his authorial voice behind these characters is the very thing that’s so superficial.
Thoroughbreds stands in the long shadow cast by Heathers, a film that has remained a significant part of the cultural conversation since it premiered in 1988. Unfortunately, the film never manages to move itself out from under this shadow; as a result, it plays like a superficial ode to a much better film.
Other films, including Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body have interrogated the enthralling menace of teenage girls, portraying their characters with far more insight and thoughtfulness than Thoroughbreds.
The Virgin Suicides makes a monster out of the pressures and limits of youth, watching as a family with five sisters get torn apart and doomed as a consequence of their own repression. The story understands, in a way that Thoroughbreds does not, the manner in which the girls become their own victims. The very traits that make them such compelling characters ultimately lead to their demise.
In Jennifer’s Body, Megan Fox’s character literally becomes a monster after a demon possesses her. She begins to feed on the very men that objectify her as her best friend tries to stop her. Like The Virgin Suicides and Heathers, Jennifer’s Body understands that, for the story to work, the real monster is not actually the teenage girl. The best films in this genre understand that these “monsters” are forged from circumstance. This is patently different from Thoroughbreds where the teenage girls are monstrous just…because.
There’s a scene in the middle of the film that typifies Finley’s shallow approach to the story. The girls are in the backyard; Lily sits on a bench staring into the distance as Amanda plays chess against herself using a life-sized, stone chess set.
It’s an impeccably composed shot, but one that mirrors Finley’s treatment of his characters; Lily and Amanda are pawns, one-dimensional tools for Finley to achieve his personal vision of wicked teenage girls. It’s superficial at best and pales in comparison to the legacy of the genre.