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story.lead_photo.caption Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) are estranged childhood pals who get back together to try to make it through high school in the dark comedy Thoroughbreds.

Olivia Cooke, one half of the duo that star in Cory Finley's directorial debut Thoroughbreds, alongside Anya Taylor-Joy, is precisely the sort of inquisitive, instinctual actress we should be lauding for her choice in roles. The 24-year-old originally hails from Manchester, England, but her affiliation with Americans is noteworthy in her filmography, which include taking well-established character types and finding ways to make them fresh and shockingly believable.

After a handful of parts in mostly forgettable would-be horror films (including a lead role in Ouija), her first opportunity to garner significant attention in this country came in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the erstwhile Sundance hit that didn't make much of an impact out in the cold, real world. Still, her turn -- as the eponymous Dying Girl, Rachel -- was noteworthy in that she took the stock character of sad-but-beautiful tragic love interest, and turned it into something approximating real bite. Because she imbues Rachel with precious grounding, her eventual death does actually lend the film some earned pathos, and leaves an emotional crater from which it can't really recover.

Thoroughbreds

87 Cast: Anton Yelchin, Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke, Francie Swift, Paul Sparks

Director: Cory Finley

Rating: R for disturbing behavior, bloody images, language, sexual references and some drug content

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

The next year, she starred in Wayne Roberts' Katie Says Goodbye, a film about a young waitress with such a sunny disposition in the face of the daily misery and grinding need of everyone in the small New Mexico town where she lives with her hard-drinking mother, she becomes the de-facto Christ-like Redeemer, taking everyone's pain, fury, and sins upon herself. Cooke delivers a masterful treatise on taking the character type and anchoring it with what feels like real sensibilities.

In Thoroughbreds, she plays Amanda, a young woman with sociopathic tendencies -- she admits to her longtime friend, from whom she has been estranged awhile, that she doesn't seem to actually feel much of anything at all, and spends her time emulating emotions she sees other people suffering through: standard teen ennui blown up and brought to dangerous levels. Amanda has just returned from significant time in an institution after goring and killing a once-beloved horse in his stables -- an act of murderous depravity she actually goes on to explain later in the film, making her somewhat less unsympathetic -- and has come to visit her old friend Lily (Taylor-Joy), a young woman with a very wealthy, if horrific, stepfather in a very wealthy part of Connecticut, where they both live.

Ostensibly, Amanda has come for tutoring help so she can get her schooling back on track, and as Lily tries to play it, meet with an old friend out of the kindness of her heart. But in truth Lily has been paid handsomely by Amanda's desperate mother in order to give her troubled daughter at least some kind of social contact.

Burning through the niceties -- Amanda calls out Lily for her front of pious helpfulness; Lily eventually admits that Amanda scares her, and that she doesn't smell particularly nice -- the two actually become closer to something approximating friendship. Or, put a different way, they gradually become accomplices. It seems as though Lily's abhorrent stepfather (Paul Sparks) has pushed her to a breaking point, and she wants Amanda's conniving abilities to help her plan to murder him.

Now, while we appear to be in well-mapped territory at this point -- consult with Peter Jackson's riveting Heavenly Creatures -- Amanda's curious disassociation (her therapist has run the gamut of calling out her disorders, working backward from bipolar, to borderline personality, to schizophrenic) makes her dispassion only half-useful for Lily's purposes. Finley's film wants to pull us in a slightly different direction, even as the women assemble a questionable scheme involving a local drug dealer (the late Anton Yelchin, in one of his last roles) doing the actual dirty work.

No, Amanda's ambivalence runs as deep as you care to look, as Lily begins to understand toward the end, which works very much to her advantage. So the question becomes how can Cooke bring life to a character that quite literally doesn't seem to care about much of anything at all, exactly? Thankfully, Finley has imbued his dubious heroine with one essential quality: curiosity.

As much as Amanda herself doesn't experience what we might call regular human emotions -- she spends some time trying to teach Lily how to convincingly cry on command, one actress to another -- she is endlessly fascinated by the human condition, and not anywhere near as myopically self-obsessed as your standard serial killer or disengaged teen. Everything to her becomes an experiment of one kind or another, beginning with visiting an old friend whom you know is only spending time with you because she was paid off by your mother, to planning a murder scheme while maximizing your skill at creating reasonable alibis.

The effect is a good deal less harsh than you might imagine. Under Cooke's capable care, Amanda emerges not as a heartless monster -- despite what you may think of her horse killing (completely off-camera, for those such as I, who care about such things) -- but as a curious alien from deepest space, an interstellar tourist willing to adopt the peculiar customs and schemes on this mysterious planet in order to dutifully record the results.

There are precious few actresses who could pull off such a character without succumbing to cheaper and more maudlin tricks: Cooke is the rare bird who can make even a young woman without a discernible conscience come across as oddly sympathetic.

It’s all a game and everyone’s pretending to be human in Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, which stars Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy as privileged kids plotting something horrible.

MovieStyle on 03/09/2018

Print Headline: Thoroughbreds

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