One of the supreme joys of a festival like Sundance is walking into a movie with no expectations and walking out a total convert. This year, maybe no other film provided that experience to the extent of Thoroughbred, the writing and directing debut of playwright Cory Finley. But while Finley was previously unknown to most festival attendees, his two stars were not: Olivia Cooke, 23, and Anya Taylor-Joy, 20, are hardened Sundance vets, the former having played the titular girl in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the latter having done remarkable work in Robert Eggers’s bravura The Witch. And if those roles had provided notice for the talents of Cooke and Taylor-Joy, then Thoroughbred should seal the deal: These two are major-league talents.
It doesn’t hurt that the movie creates such a rich world for them to work in. A noirish thriller centered around the unusual bond between two teenage girls in Connecticut, Thoroughbred follows Cooke’s Amanda, who admits that she’s incapable of feeling emotion, and Taylor-Joy’s Lily, a perfect-on-the-outside Andover student struggling with her new stepfather. Finley told me his influences included Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, as well as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and the spirit of both filmmakers is evident in Finley and DP Lyle Vincent’s long Steadicam shots, the winding hallways of the film’s baronial suburban mansion, and the menacing, theatrical focus of the staging, which often features the two actresses in long takes, engaging in a relationship that toggles sublimely between strategic partnership and odd sisterhood.
For Taylor-Joy and Cooke, two actresses who both dominate the screen, Thoroughbred is a useful showcase in a couple of ways. One, it gives them each the type of complex lead role neither has had before, with Finley’s sharp characterization giving them plenty of prime opportunities to play off each other. (At times, that dynamic also includes Anton Yelchin, who is terrific in one of his final film roles.) It’s the type of film in which each one elevates the other, and the stars clearly are having fun with the pair’s dynamic, a delight that comes across in the finished product.
“They’ve got this fascination with each other, despite the fact that they’re so different, and they’ve been apart for such a long time,” Taylor-Joy told Vulture. “And yet they’re kind of — to steal a word that Olivia used earlier, they’re usurping each other constantly. They’re always manipulating each other, always slithering around like serpents.”
One of the most obvious ways in which Finley shows this difference, and a dynamic that’s present from the start, is their appearances. Taylor-Joy’s Lily wears girlish, preppy blouses and shorts, her hair perfect and her face carefully arranged, a masterpiece of adolescent precision. She’s the kind of girl used to being looked at. Meanwhile, Cooke’s Amanda has wild hair, wears dresses that don’t quite fit, all in the service of establishing just how alienated this young woman is.
“There were these Birkenstocks that Corey hated, and I really fought with him,” Cooke says. “I find it off-putting when you meet someone that’s just got their toes on show, who’s got their feet out. There’s an arrogance there. It’s like when I see a man wearing flip-flops, and they just put their feet on the table. And I wanted that weird lack of social etiquette, that masculinity, with these awful chunky Birkenstocks on my gross, un-manicured, dirty feet.”
It’s that kind of command that both women demonstrate throughout the length of Thoroughbred. Taylor-Joy’s own version of Cooke’s Birkenstocks is a wasp necklace meant to hide Lily’s hidden sting. And beyond aesthetic differences, the actresses have arcs that make contrasting, though equally difficult, demands on each performer. Cooke must play a character who is affectless and unfeeling in all circumstances. It’s a tremendous challenge for an actor, depriving them of their greatest weapon — their control of expression.
“She only feels tired or hungry; guilt, joy, sadness, she doesn’t really feel those things,” Cooke says. “For me, going into that, I didn’t really want to research a specific mental illness, because she says she’s been diagnosed with the whole lot. I thought it would be more interesting for me if somewhere down the road, these emotions that she had were repressed, either by her or something that happened to her, and she just can’t access them. It was interesting to try and find the colors within that, and I think manipulation plays a factor. The fact that she imitates emotions all the time — she’s constantly trying to fit in.”
Taylor-Joy, meanwhile, portrays a character in a corresponding dilemma, one that’s likely more familiar to your average teenager: She has plenty of emotions, but doesn’t feel comfortable displaying them honestly. At the beginning of Thoroughbred, Amanda needles Lily, trying to provoke her into shattering her polite, manufactured persona. When she does, you can see the scales simultaneously fall from Taylor-Joy’s eyes, like a curtain has been lifted off her; it’s one of the more impressive pieces of acting I’ve seen in a while.
“When she starts off, she is this doll. She’s got all of these things that she’s striving for that she thinks mean she’s perfect, and that she’s happy. And the truth is that she’s not. She’s a young woman and she’s growing up, but she’s desperately trying to put up this facade,” Taylor-Joy says. “And underneath it’s just rippling tension, all the time, and she’s just unable to let it go — I’ve always thought she was just one bad conversation away from absolute mental breakdown.”
Each ends up wanting what the other doesn’t have: Lily desires Amanda’s complete command over her own behavior, and Amanda covets Lily’s relative normalcy. It’s a poignant heightening of a dynamic we’re all familiar with, and one that particularly characterizes the late-teenage years, when your personality and place within the world is beginning to crystallize, often in ways you might not like.
More than the beautiful imagery, haunting percussive score, or razor-wire dialogue, it’s this understanding of human growth that makes Thoroughbred truly special. And for both actresses, who are well on their way to stardom — Cooke features in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One, and Taylor-Joy’s currently starring in Split, the No. 1 movie in the country — that depth stands out in an increasingly shallow world, even if, or especially because, it comes with an accordant darkness.
“People are getting really tired of seeing one-dimensional characters, especially women — they’re tired of seeing, like, ‘Oh, that’s the pretty blonde girls who’s goodness and light and spits rainbows out of her mouth,’” Taylor-Joy says. “It’s nice to see very complex young people, and the fact that they’re women just elevates that, for me.”
“And we’re all so flawed,” Cooke adds. “Despite what filters you put on a picture, nothing can hide that.”