Fantastic Fest Day 1 Recap: Opening night, ‘THOROUGHBREDS’ and ‘THELMA’

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

Yesterday was a very curious day for the festival. With all the controversy clouding over the Alamo Drafthouse, no one knew how the first day for Fantastic Fest would pan out.

Would festival co-founder and Drafthouse CEO Tim League show up? Would he give his annual opening speech? What would the conversations look in the lobby while fest-watchers waited for their movies to be seated?

Well… League didn’t give an opening night speech. He didn’t show up. And he has no plans of attending the festival this year, according to an IndieWire article that posted yesterday. Even the volume of fans didn’t seem to run as thick as previous years, which may be due to the lack of exciting titles in Day 1’s lineup. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI pulling out of the festival definitely had an impact.

Kristen Bell, director of Fantastic Fest, wanted to assure everyone that the Fantastic Fest is a fun, comfortable environment for people to watch movies. As challenging as it may have been for some folks to attend this year, it was important to the staff and volunteers that attendees “watch some great movies, have some great conversations and have a hell of a good time,” Bell said during her heartfelt opening speech before THOROUGHBREDS.

And this is exactly what we plan to do.

THOROUGHBREDS

Director: Cory Finley
Cast: Olivia CookeAnya Taylor-JoyAnton Yelchin and Paul Sparks

Social satire isn’t a rare theme in films. Deconstructing the way classes are linked and finding humor within can be, and has been, a meaty topic in some great works. However, it takes tact and precision, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, to feel worthy of water-cooler talk. Cory Findley’s THOROUGHBREDS is a self-assured debut from a director who is on the cusp of finding a voice in his vision, but the tone misses the mark.

The cast includes two up-and-coming actors, Anya-Taylor Joy (SPLIT) and Olivia Cooke (upcoming READY PLAYER ONE), and the late-and-great Anton Yelchin (GREEN ROOM). Despite their committed performances, something is missing to connect us to this tale of two affluent girls who conjure up a murder scheme. The cast subvert certain expectations for audience members, even though the film sleeps through a static that just never comes past a dull whimper. Findley keeps us at a distance from his characters, and ultimately the film falters on that notion alone.

While Findley delivers on making its small story cinematic, with notable tracking shots and blocking (which I assume comes from his stage background), it takes adept skill to deliver on the dark and biting levels THOROUGHBREDS is aiming to achieve. This satire needed some fine tuning. [by James Cole Clay]

Grade: C-

THOROUGHBREDS has an encore screening on Thursday, Sept. 28 at 12:30 p.m.

THELMA

Director: Joachim Trier
Cast: Eili HarboeKaya WilkinsHenrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen

Sometimes the best sci-fi movies out there are the ones that spend a little less time on the high-dollar spectacle and a little more on the story at hand. Titles such as James Ward Byrkit’s COHERENCE and Andrew Droz Palermo’s ONE AND TWO use their fantastical elements merely as a backdrop. Their main focus is how the characters connect and react within their eerie settings.

This is very much the idea behind Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s new film THELMA, which had its regional premiere last night in the 9 p.m. CT time slot. On the outside looking in, and if you read the film’s brief plot description on IMDb (“A woman begins to fall in love, only to discover that she has fantastic powers.”), you are led to believe this is going to be a popcorn thriller of the largest scale. However, as you soon realize during the film’s mysterious opening, this is anything but typical genre fare.

THELMA is a slow-burn film, and one that may require a great deal of patience to find yourself sucked in its vortex. But if you allow the calculated visuals (slow tracking shots and continuous camera zooms, even one that pays homage to the work of Alfred Hitchcock), rich characters and profound themes in, you will bare witness to one of the most fulfilling movie experience this festival has had. It’s an incredible low-key sci-fi with damn good drama and performances. [by Preston Barta]

Grade: A

THELMA has an encore screening on Monday, Sept. 25 at 5:30 p.m.

Tune in tomorrow for Day 2, where we will provide some thoughts on THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE and WHEELMAN.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.

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