Schoolyard wisdom posits that girls grow up faster than boys; while America’s presumptive captains of industry are eating boogers and accruing grass stains, their distaff counterparts are developing valuable emotional intelligence and learning to effectively communicate. So says classic girl group the Cookies, and a bit of scientific evidence to support the claim has surfaced as well. Some feminist discourse, however, leans toward the course-correction that this purportedly natural phenomenon is quite literally man-made.
The idea is that young women mature as quickly as the world demands of them, and when the deck has been so thoroughly stacked against their favor, coming-of-age comes quick. The old “boys will be boys” line has been trotted out to exonerate misbehavior since time immemorial. There is, conspicuously, no female equivalent.
The characters headlining two noteworthy indie releases this month — the recently released, deader-than-deadpan Thoroughbreds and Friday’s taboo-teasing Flower — probably grew up a little too quickly for their own good. Life has acquainted these teenagers with the darkness of adulthood from a rather young age; both Flower’s Erica (Zoey Deutch) and Thoroughbreds’ Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) have absent father figures, and as shown in her film’s lyrical opening sequence, Lily’s unlikely friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke) first embraced her latent sociopathic tendencies by euthanizing her horse.
All three high schoolers transmute their internal discord into hostility that is then selectively channeled outward and used like a weapon. But weapons require licenses, or at least they should, and the person wielding them can get hurt just as easily as their target.
Both films center on a character type most aptly labeled the Junior Femme Fatale, a guileful girl who knows how to use her unassuming appearance to get away with anything. But whereas the femmes fatale of older noirs existed primarily in relation to a male opposite, to be pined for and seduced and on occasion fully won over, the girls of Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds and Max Winkler’s Flower dominate their own narratives by victimizing adult men.
In Flower, Erica’s idea of an after-school job involves luring guys around town into oral sex — sometimes it takes a bit of urging, sometimes it doesn’t — and then blackmailing them with evidence of statutory rape. With some nudging from the dispassionate Amanda, Lily hatches a plot to murder her draconian and possibly abusive stepfather in Thoroughbreds. Erica refers to herself as a “vigilante,” but Lily believes she’s reluctantly doing what must be done.
But in both cases, the feminist undercurrent runs strong and not without complication. Erica and her accomplice friends (Dylan Gelula and Maya Eshet) believe they’re performing a public service by purging their community of perverts, deciding that it’s a “moral obligation” to expose a teacher (Adam Scott) that Erica’s stepbrother once accused of molestation. And it is, at least kind of.
The men they select are guilty of sexual impropriety, though the girls’ choice to extort money from these marks and the visible glee they take in the process suggest that their intentions might not be as purely righteous as they’d like to believe. An early scene compresses all of the contradictions into a few minutes: Erica blows a lecherous local cop, then fleeces him for all he’s worth, which is $400. On the one hand, this authority figure has accepted sexual attention from an underage girl. On the other, his accusation of entrapment isn’t entirely off-base.
Erica herself knows she likes the cashflow, but as is the case with most teens, she doesn’t completely understand the nature of her own sexual drives. Winkler shows Erica routinely brushing her teeth after each job, scraping her tongue as if to cleanse herself from the grossness of the middle-aged anatomy. There’s no romance in these furtive hookups, only transactional exchange. Erica’s so estranged from the emotional component of sex that when her stepbrother hits a spell of glumness, she offers to blow him right on the sidewalk.
Even so, she’s got a genuine thing for older men. (The phallic doodles all over her notebook and a T-shirt cheekily emblazoned with the word “Daddy” pretty much qualify as redundancies.) In the moments before events take a turn for the worst, her pseudo-seduction of the teacher threatens to become real as they open up and bare their unhappiness to one another. Erica thinks of her scams as a method of forcibly seizing control from a life that allows her none, but she’s doing more than her fair share of emotional floundering.
Likewise, Thoroughbreds sets the audience up to root for young women as they strike back against male aggressors, while interrogating the motivations and ancillary consequences of their actions. Finley frames Lily’s stepdad Mark (Paul Sparks) as a squarely contemptible guy. He’s coarse and humorless, prone to outbursts at Lily’s mother, and constantly sucking down juice cleanses in a gesture of bourgeois absurdity. The rhythmic grinding of the rowing machine he uses for exercise drives Lily up a wall, and the audience is supposed to share in that hatred. Amanda arrives as an avenging angel just when Lily needs her most, each emboldening the other to finally take drastic measures against violent men.
Except that we never actually see Mark lay a hand on Lily’s mother, only raise his voice, an elision too conspicuous to be incidental. It seems to count for something, too, that Lily resolves to end Mark’s life only after he reads her the riot act and pledges to cut off her allowance once she graduates high school. And let’s not forget to mention Tim (the late Anton Yelchin), a small-time drug dealer that the girls force to do their dirty work. Tim’s a skeeze, but he’s got plans to make something of his life, and so there’s a crucial twinge of pity when he ends up as Amanda and Lily’s collateral damage. Like Erica, they do what they’re sure is the right thing, but for questionable reasons and in what is definitely the wrong way.
These two films were conceived and written before the last year’s deluge of sexual misconduct revelations, and yet they’re now inextricable from the present moment. Ideologues on both sides of the political aisle have nail-chewed over the sudden surge of power that women have harnessed. The concern that, say, all courtship will grind to a halt if we attempt to curb harassment is at best misplaced, if not entirely in bad faith — but the truth remains that there are very serious forces at play.
Flower and Thoroughbreds present two noble missions gone awry, pitting the responsibility thrust onto these girls against the possibility that they’re not yet prepared to handle it. In their own way, they offer a pessimistic extrapolation of current trends, fretting over how easily this sorely needed increase in agency can spin out of control. These girls are at once beneficiaries and victims of their own independence. They take matters into their own hands specifically because no one else will, but the work is difficult, and never free of casualties.