The fluidity of teenage friendships, captured so well in the recent “Lady Bird,” swirls at the heart of “Thoroughbreds,” which is “Lady Bird’s” opposite in every conceivable way. Originally written as a play, writer-director Cory Finley’s impressive, coolly controlled debut feature drops us into a fine fat vat of privilege, where young lives of quiet, moneyed desperation are being lived on the edge.
Lily is the “normal” one, living with her mother and her stepfather, eyeing some rich college prospects. Years ago Lily was best friends with Amanda; more recently, Amanda has become troubled, and after the mutilation of a prized horse, she has burrowed deeper into herself.
Arrangements are made, and Lily and Amanda reunite, uneasily, with Lily as Amanda’s tutor. Lily’s stepfather is a control freak with crushed ice in his veins and, in film noir terms, he’s just asking for a fatal comeuppance. The “normal” girl is appalled at the “abnormal” girl’s plan to dispatch the stepfather, but “Thoroughbreds” complicates those labels as the plot snakes its way toward violence.
A lot of the banter here has a slyly satiric tone, and just when the style becomes a little suffocating, along comes a much-needed disruption. He’s Tim (Anton Yelchin), a small-time drug dealer with big dreams, and a gun, to assist the girls in their team project. The acting in “Thoroughbreds” is wonderfully all of a piece. Olivia Cooke (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) plays Amanda, one step ahead of everybody else. She finds a dozen separate gradations of “deadpan” in her portrait of a lost soul who has not lost her zingers, or her timing. Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”) provides shrewd counterpoint as the frenemy who becomes almost invisibly more pliable, and putty-like, in Amanda’s hands.
Then there’s Yelchin. The actor, who died in a freak accident two years ago at 27, completed all his scenes as Tim before his death. While he had played variations on this theme of smooth-talking weasel many times, his performance in “Thoroughbreds” really was one of his best — wheedling one minute, pathetic the next, ruthless the minute after that and, finally, rather touching.
Finley’s narrative owes a large debt to “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and some of his blunter thesis points about these girls’ surroundings and values probably could’ve used another revision. On the other hand: For material that started out for the stage, Finley’s directorial debut really does feel like a movie. It’s elegant and well-plotted but not at the expense of the performances. With the help of editor Louise Ford, Finley lets a lot of the key shots linger a second or two, which allows these excellent performers that extra second or two to reveal something new. A fidget. An averted glance. An exasperated, darting look. These are the building blocks of noir, and “Thoroughbreds” is confident enough to establish Finley as a talent to watch.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
'Thoroughbreds' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for disturbing behavior, bloody images, language, sexual references and some drug content)
Running time: 1:30