‘ Thoroughbreds’ smart, amoral comedy
They say there can’t be a good story without a good villain.
In his dazzling debut, director and screenwriter Cory Finley aims higher. “Thoroughbreds,” a smart, amoral suspense comedy about the high price of having it all, gives us villainy in stereo.
With double the standard badness quota, the film isn’t just good. It’s excellent, en route to a rabid cult following if not more. Watching this is a reminder that seeing wicked people do wicked things can be one of cinema’s greatest pleasures.
Thoroughbred is a term that’s used to describe to both valuable race horses and flawless young guys and girls. Here, it’s a clever bait and switch. Anya Taylor- Joy and Olivia Cooke play Lily and Amanda, two ostensible heroines with fresh- faced beauty and polished manners who would skin Dalmatian puppies for a fur coat. The teens live in an upper- crust section of Connecticut where smaller mansions have fewer than two dozen rooms. The old boarding school chums reconnect after some years apart, spending weekend afternoons inside Amanda’s perfect home, studying for a college prep test.
They’re together in a form of weekend detention designed by their overscheduled parents. Amanda has been a social leper since creating a scandal involving her horse, not that she was all that popular before. Lily killed her own Ivy League dreams and was put under house arrest by her totally uncool stepdad after an embarrassing episode of plagiarism. As the castaways grudgingly restart their old friendship, things get insidious.
We learn that icy cool Amanda isn’t just acting detached; she really is. She is so blasé about the difference between make- believe and real life that she performs smiles in the mirror and practices crying at will by using “the technique” starlets used to weep in old black andwhite movies. “I have a perfectly fine brain,” she announces. “It just doesn’t contain feelings. It doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person— just that I have to try harder than other people to be good.”
Her ambition is to “Steve Jobs my way through life,” a sample of Finley’s knack for writing— and his cast’s gift for delivering — comically robust strains of cynicism.
The quieter of the two, but hardly the lesser character, Lily has lots and lots of feelings, and her own brand of performance art. She dresses and behaves like a demure preppy debutante because playing the brat is undignified. Still, she is concealing feral resentments against Mom’s new husband, Mark ( Paul Sparks, impressively unlikable yet far from evil).
We see a photo of him standing self- importantly beside a lion he killed and another posing with a samurai sword, which he keeps on the wall of his study. He wears skintight bike shorts, treats his wife like a servant and makes droning sounds hour after hour on his rowing machine. When pragmatic Amanda asks, “Ever think about just killing him?” Lily is aghast, until she’s atingle. They’re hardly perfect friends, but as co- conspirators they complement each other perfectly.
Executing their task requires a flunky to play the hit man, and the girls find a magnificent simpleton in Tim ( the late Anton Yelchin in one of his final roles). He’s a nickeland- dime drug dealer of humble background who imagines that with a decade of hard work and determination, he could take charge of the local market for dope — and move out of his dad’s home for a place of his own.
This Horatio Alger hero in reverse has facial bruises where his high school clients beat him up, but he’s ever ready to put his swollen nose back to the grindstone. Yelchin makes Tim a hilarious blend of ambition, anxiety and absurdity, a born loser with generations of disappointment in his DNA.
Finley’ s female leads, in contrast, are larger than life, vibrant with energy, and, like sharks, always moving forward. As is the film. “Thoroughbreds” shows howto create a polished noir gem with a small cast, a handful of beautifully decorated sets, gliding, voyeuristic steadicam work and superb sound design. I don’t think the scraping blades of unseen kitchen knives has ever been so spine- chilling.
Something wicked your way comes, and it really should not be missed.
“Thoroughbreds,” a Focus Features release, is rated R for disturbing behavior, bloody images, language, sexual references and some drug content. Running time: 92 minutes.
“A Wrinkle in Time”
Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” is a landmark film even before it hits theaters.
The adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s eerie, mystical young adult sci- fi novel from 1962 was budgeted at more than $ 100 million, the largest budget a woman of color has been handed for a film. DuVernay is only the fourth female director to receive that kind of budget for a project, and in tackling the beloved “A Wrinkle in Time,” she has taken an enormous swing. That alone is worthy of recognition.
DuVernay marshalled an array of star power to inhabit L’Engle’s tale, with Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling stepping into the roles of the Misses; supernatural, deity- like beings who guide the young Meg ( Storm Reid) on her journey through space and time. It’s almost laughably appropriate casting for Winfrey, who embodies the wise, godlike presence Mrs. Which.
Underneath the sci- fi and fantasy elements of both the book and film of “A Wrinkle in Time,” the story is quite simple: a young girl sets out to find her missing father ( Chris Pine). She may travel through fantastic al worlds of space and time, guided by mystical forces, but ultimately, this is a story about reuniting a family.
Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell have adapted what has been considered an “unfilmable” book, and keeping the story simple, and earnest, is the necessary foundation for the fantastical set pieces that DuVernay crafts. Meg, her precocious younger brother Charles Wallace ( Deric McCabe), and their friend Calvin ( Levi Miller) travel through space and time, from verdant and vibrant planets to the dark, reality- bending space of Camazotz, where her father is believed to be stranded.
DuVernay shoots for the stars with a highly stylized look and energy to the film that’s both visionary and referential. It’s very much akin a children’s fantasy adventure film fromthe ’ 80s or ’ 90s— the quirky Misses, especially Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit, are clearly indebted to Zelda Rubinstein’s performances from “Teen Witch” and “Poltergeist.” In certain moments, it feels a lot like “The NeverEnding Story,” in others, it’s closer to the oddball Robin Williams vehicle “Toys.”
When “Wrinkle” is firing on all cylinders, it’s a transporting adventure that brings you back to the imaginative adventure of childhood, when the stakes were clear, and always high. The goals are straightforward, and the film wears its heart plainly on its sleeve. It’s not often that we see purely straightforward films that are simply about vanquishing darkness with the light from within us. That’s exactly what “Wrinkle” is about, and it never hides or nuances that message.
But there are times when the film doesn’t quite flow. The tone and style is often herky jerky and affected, especially with the Misses. The edit isn’t smooth and lulling — instead it skitters and yanks, often to alert us to shifts in the film’s reality, but it’s jarring and uncomfortable. Some of the more action- packed moments devolve into a jumble of grayish CGI, losing all of the carefully honed world- building. Even worse, the relationship between Calvin and Meg is uncomfortably romantic and distracting.
DuVernay has set out to make an ambitious fantasy epic, and in many ways, she succeeds. Pine is wonderful as the reckless but inspirational dad Dr. Murry, and McCabe is a breakout star, stealing the film from his co- stars as the odd little brother. Many moments are beautiful and surreal, while others are just plain weird ( and not always in a good way). If it doesn’t always work, well, at least DuVernay went for it, and her version of “A Wrinkle in Time” is just as gorgeous and strange as can be expected.
“A Wrinkle In Time,” a Disney release, is rated PG for thematic elements and some peril. Running time: 109 minutes. ½
Reese Witherspoon, left, and Storm Reid star in the Disney film “A Wrinkle In Time.”