IndieWire described “Thoroughbreds” as a cross between “American Psycho” and “Heathers” when it first debuted at Sundance last year, a comparison the film’s marketing team uses frequently. Vanity Fair proclaimed that actresses Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy give the Heathers “a run for their money,” while Rolling Stone described the duo as quickly entering “into ‘Heathers’ 2.0 territory.”
Readers, I have one thing to ask of you: Please don’t equate these two movies. Both involve vengeful teenagers, but “Thoroughbreds” will be remembered for its startling commitment to the lead characters’ lack of morality.
The film begins with troubled Amanda (Cooke) entering the glorious mansion where her childhood friend Lily (Taylor-Joy) lives with her mother (Francie Smith) and cruel stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), who irks his stepdaughter with rude comments and an obsessive fitness regime. Amanda has been ostracized by her peers ever since she mutilated a family horse — yes, really — and her mother has persuaded polished A-student Lily to tutor her daughter and, hopefully, befriend her once again.
Amanda claims she has lost the ability to feel emotion, which contributes to her randomly suggesting one day that Lily remedy her difficult relationship with Mark by killing him. Her oddly charming deadpan has captivated Lily by this point, and the two rope a local drug dealer, Tim (Anton Yelchin, in one of his final roles), into their criminal plot.
It’s easy to draw a line from Amanda to J.D. (Slater) in “Heathers,” as both persuade their seemingly innocent screen partners to commit a heinous crime. The convinced teenagers come from wealthy families — Lily in Connecticut and Veronica (Ryder) in Ohio — and have a personal vendetta against their targets. They grapple with the immense pressures of high school, Lily worried about her college prospects and Veronica upset by a rigid social hierarchy.
But these comparisons are skin deep. Aside from the obvious differences — the actual plot and tone, to a certain extent — each film speaks to distinct issues facing teens of its era. “Heathers” was released on the heels of John Hughes movies such as “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink,” both of which dealt with the social stratification of high school in an optimistic manner. When Veronica and J.D. stage Heather Chandler’s death as a suicide and unintentionally make the act popular, they highlight the dangers of groupthink and disregarding suffering. The lasting impression of “Heathers” seems to be similar to that of its iconic line “F— me gently with a chainsaw,” but the film ends on a hopeful note.
These challenges still afflict modern teens, of course, but Finley’s characters are closer to those of 1994’s “Heavenly Creatures,” Peter Jackson’s 1994 movie about two disturbed friends who plot to murder one of their mothers. (Finley cites “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” as his inspiration.) He adopts a nihilist approach in an era worried by how shallow social media has affected teens’ priorities. Whereas audiences root for Veronica and witness her hesitation throughout the film, Lily and Amanda are incapable of true compassion and therefore garner none. Mark is awful — and not just because of his affinity for Vineyard Vines — but he’s ultimately correct when he criticizes his stepdaughter’s selfishness. Even Amanda agrees and tells Lily, “Empathy isn’t your strong suit.”
The pair takes Amanda’s desire to “Steve Jobs [her] way through life” a little too seriously, turning their friendship into a game of manipulation and blackmailing the idiotic Tim into doing their dirty work. Finley doesn’t intentionally deride their behavior the way “Heathers” screenwriter Daniel Waters did with J.D. He isn’t trying to make too much of a point here, as he recently told The Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan: “There is this whole genre of movies about young women scheming together. But I really want to steer clear of what the cultural implications of that may be.”
It’s an odd time to see violence on screen carried out by teens with sociopath-like traits, given recent events in Parkland, Fla. The characters’ relative disregard for consequences displayed in “Thoroughbreds” contrasts with the heavy-handed lessons of other noir-tinted teen programming such as the CW’s “Riverdale” or even Paramount Network’s planned “Heathers” reboot, which reportedly tries to send some sort of message by positioning teens from marginalized communities as the bullies. (The network delayed the series premiere after the Parkland shooting.)
What makes “Thoroughbreds” compelling is its complete lack of answers. We live in an era saturated with almost anthropological films, series and news stories that attempt to explain why adolescents behave the way they do — admittedly a valid concern after traumatic events. But it’s refreshing to see a project that gives us a break from all the soul-searching and acknowledges that teens can be frustratingly inscrutable. Unlike “Heathers,” whose mildly happy ending meshed with the high school films of its time, there’s no specific reason behind Amanda and Lily’s behavior. This storytelling technique seems purposeful, especially in a genre that thrives on intrigue and questionable morality. As Amanda memorably tells Lily, “You cannot hesitate. The only thing worse than being incompetent, or being unkind, or being evil, is being indecisive.”