Sundance is peak indie, where filmmakers go to be depressed in peace. It’s why a moviegoer mocked the dramatic tone to the plot of Cory Finley’s barbarous directorial debut; angst is nothing new to the film nerd. A statement on mental health, friendship, femininity, and something to do with horses, Thoroughbreds thoroughly entertains for its brief 90 minute runtime.
Lily visits Amanda, her best friend she had grown apart from since middle school, in an effort to help her disturbed friend. Amanda’s father is absent from the film, suggesting he’s absent from her life; her mother seems very unsure of how to help. Desperate to improve her daughter’s well-being, she turns to Lily; paying her a hefty sum. Lily, of course, comes from a wealthy household headed by the film’s antagonist, Mark, and her own apprehensive mother. Her father is absent from the film because he passed away beforehand, leaving her subjected to years of Mark’s cruelty.
Naturally, Amanda sees through the facade, and gets to the root of Lily’s problems rather quickly. All the questions and therapeutical exercises lead to is Lily storming away in frustration, and Amanda using that to get her long-lost friend to open up during their second visit. The writing in the film is good, a testament to Finley’s storytelling abilities, but I can’t help but roll my eyes when the two girls literally hug it out after Lily decides to be honest with Amanda.
I’m a cynical bastard, so it does upset me to see the dynamic between Lily and Amanda flip to the point where the depressive Amanda is helping Lily through her rich kid problems. Amanda’s solution is murdering Lily’s stepdad, initially upsetting her friend, but eventually Lily becomes more anxious to carry out the task than even Amanda. Mark’s abusive behavior is the only character trait he has, and it gradually swells in rancor as the film progresses, floating the idea in front of the audience through his despicable personality and allowing us to witness that decision-making process play out. However, when approached from this angle, it implies that Amanda is the one teaching Lily about the world, which disregards Amanda’s need for an outlet. The idea of a mentally ill protagonist is intriguing, but when you’ve already dedicated time to a plot and cast, it’s disheartening to see Amanda’s needs put aside to aide her well-off friend.
Lily’s lack of empathy is contrasted to Amanda’s vigilance, a strong, if not static way of commenting on personality traits of the mentally ill compared to a normal, educated person. It’s more realistic that Lily would find a way to make herself the focus of the dilemma, as Finley’s writing suggests that someone like Amanda would never seek out help anyway, and I agree with him. I just wish he had shown a better way for Amanda to ease her personal burdens than the one audiences received on-screen.
Not only that, but the straw that breaks the camel’s back is when Mark announces his intentions of sending Lily to a different school than the one she intended, while shitting on the memory of her dead father for good measure. After telling her friend to leave her house once she makes the murderous suggestion, and then going weeks without seeing her due to Mark’s restrictions, it’s only when Lily’s future school preference is threatened that she decides to do something about it. It almost makes you wonder if Mark really is the antagonist, especially once Lily murders him.
Then again, both male characters are not the kind of guys you’d want your hypothetical daughters to end up with. Tim’s a statutory rapist with no confidence and plenty of ambition, partly why his character is at once a creep, and a trusting source for our leads. Mark’s character flaws are on full display throughout he film, so it makes you stand back as a man and question what you’re bringing to the table. One side of the masculine coin is pitiful, the other is abrasive; will you step outside the traditional confines and work your way to where you want to be like Tim at the end of the film? Or will you allow your natural male tendencies to get the better of you, like Tim when we’re first introduced to him as a drug dealer for minors, or even Mark’s abrasive behavior that leads to his murder.
If masculinity refuses to protect femininity, the femininity will get the job done by other means. Expertly foreshadowed by Amanda’s opening tale of a poorly done horse execution, expectations are subverted when Lily takes advantage of Amanda’s planning and uses tranquilizers to knock out her best friend on the planned night. Alibi’s are set, Tim has already failed them, and there’s certainly no chance of going back once Lily has her best friend setup. Traditionally, women loves horses and ponies; it’s what helps our two leads reconnect. It’s fitting then that Amanda’s downfall is to horse tranquilizers, the one medication that was effective in silencing her. The methodical Lily carries out the deed, letting her sloppiness reflect Amanda’s previous murder, while also contrasting how, in the grand scheme of things, her plans run smoothly; without a hitch.
Finley’s writing is tight and well-paced, allowing the final minutes to place a well-wrapped, gloomy bow on the film. Amanda finds refuge in prison, raising numerous implications about mental health and our incarceration system. Lily continues on with her life, profiting off her stepfather’s demise, using it to her advantage as opportunities present themselves. Tim keeps his nose to the ground, working towards a greater goal, in awe of the fortitude only someone a privileged person like Lily could possess. In reality, it’s everyone around her that’s working on bettering themselves, meanwhile, Lily continues to live a lie, denying to Tim that she threw away Amanda’s letter; her eyes tell the truth, just as they did when she spent the last night of Amanda’s freedom in her friends lap, covered in blood, staring into the camera full of remorse. If the truth truly sets you free, then it’s no surprise that Amanda thrives amongst the inmates as Lily struggles to make meaningful connections in her business-oriented life.