“Thoroughbreds” is darkly funny, but lacking



Olivia Cooke and Anya-Taylor Joy in “Thoroughbreds.”

Scientists have recently developed a new shade of black — dubbed “Vantablack” — a shade so dark it creates the illusion of depth in the object it’s painted upon. In watching “Thoroughbreds,” the first film from director Cory Finley, I was often reminded of this newly developed color.

A black comedy in every sense of the genre, “Thoroughbreds” is an intelligent and darkly funny examination of the upper crust of American class and culture through the eyes of two young and precocious women. However, much like “Vantablack,” there is an illusion of depth present — a thematic muddiness that leaves the viewer somewhat disoriented, as if the novelty of the tone of the film could substitute for actualized depth.

“Thoroughbreds” is about two young women, Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya-Taylor Joy), estranged childhood friends who become reacquainted through SAT tutoring. Amanda feels nothing. Lily feels everything. They are polar opposites on the emotional spectrum, yet they share a common disdain for the slice of America they both inhabit, as personified through Lily’s cruel and distant stepfather.

When Amanda suggests killing him, Lily eventually agrees, and the film spirals out from there. Radically dark teen comedies aren’t new (think “Heathers”), but “Thoroughbreds” carries itself with a confidence and aesthetic flair that separates it from the pack. Glossy manicured lawns and a buzzing soundtrack mesh together to provide an emotional dissonance that underscores the characters and their situation.

The writing is sharp and sometimes seriously funny, but never in an ostentatious or aloof manner. Twin leads Olivia Cooke and Anya-Taylor Joy both excel in their roles, bringing a fierce intelligence coupled with an immaturity that only youth can provide. All of the elements of a good picture are present, and for the majority of the film, these pieces work together to provide an assured and razor-toothed comedy.

Yet, in leaving the theater, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. Some ethereal element — a thematic focus or filed point for the film to hinge upon. When the film reaches its conclusion, ending in a coda that reintroduces Anton Yelchin’s character (an ambitious and dumb drug dealer whose reach exceeds his grasp), the final notes ring out as almost hollow.

There are all of these rich and resonant pieces in play: the slick cinematography and confident visual style; the cool and collected demeanor of the lead actresses and how that contrasts nicely with the messy and evil work they’re doing; snippets of dialogue that are honed and delivered with a metallic edge.

Yet, these elements remain just that — elements. I never got the impression that they added up to anything more than what they were on the screen. There’s a shallowness present that only really reveals itself after the credits start to roll: a creeping realization that maybe everything presented on the screen is it — nothing more, nothing less.