PFF26 Capsule Reviews: Gemini and Thoroughbreds

Welcome to our Philadelphia Film Festival 26 capsule reviews! This year’s lineup looks excellent- perhaps even more stacked than last year. We are excited to be able to bring you several reviews from this year’s festival. Follow us on Twitter to keep up with the latest!

Gemini (Dir. Aaron Katz)
The first movie of the festival for me was this L.A. set indie thriller, which debuted at SXSW earlier this year. Starring Zoe Kravitz (Big Little Lies), and Lola Kirke (Mistress America), Gemini takes the form of a neo-noir in the style of Brian De Palma, David Lynch, or Nicolas Winding Refn. Director Aaron Katz (Land Ho!) takes a huge bite out of a challenging genre here- and while he chews it up very nicely, he has some trouble swallowing it.

Kravitz stars as Heather, an up and coming actress and star of the tabloids in a murky, fame obsessed Hollywood. Her assistant is Jill (Kirke), a more comedic and enmeshed version of Kristen Stewart’s roles in Personal Shopper or Clouds Of Sils Maria. The film gets miles and miles of road out of letting the two bounce off each other in a strong first third. Jill is there to clean up Heather’s rash decisions and clean up any consequences she may face. Whether it’s informing a director that Heather has decided to drop out of the movie, or getting her out of studio demanded re-shoots, Jill is there. The boundaries between friend, assistant, and love interest are blurred heavily- and Heather herself is in between a few relationships.

Something has to happen eventually to kick the plot into motion- we can’t just watch a feature length hangout between Kravitz and Kirke, unfortunately. When a serious crime is committed, we suddenly realize we’ve been detectives looking back on evidence this whole time. Any of the curious and sketchy people we have met so far could be involved- lord knows there are motives a plenty.

The movie at this point shifts away from Mulholland Drive/Persona mode, and turns a little more into Vertigo by way of The Neon Demon. Jill follows the common noir trope of turning into the unofficial investigator, in a race against time and suspicion with another detective played by John Cho (in an underexplored glorified cameo). The film remains exquisite and tantalizing until a final act which seems unsure of itself. I don’t want to spoil much more of it- but I was left with a lot of unanswered questions. There is nothing necessarily wrong with unanswered questions- clearly Katz wants us to think about it a lot. Unfortunately, there is no clear indicator of how much he really thought about it, or if he just threw up his hands at a certain point.

Nevertheless, it is absolutely worth a watch. Katz plays around with our collective enamored feelings towards Kravitz, turning them upside down. I know I, along with many others, view her as a beautiful and talented young actress who can basically do no wrong. Kirke is also a revelation- she contains more expression in her face alone than in anything she says. And she says a lot. She has a bright future ahead of her and it is fantastic to see her lead a film.  Although I was genuinely surprised that her character knew how to ride a motorcycle. Deus Ex Motorcycle, Aaron Katz?

Gemini is also playing Sunday October 22 at 4:30 at the Ritz Five.

Thoroughbreds (Dir. Cory Finley)
The second film of the night made for an incidentally great double feature with Gemini. Both films feature fantastic young and rising actresses. Both are modern updates of tried and true film tropes. Both are male directed visions of largely female worlds. And both are mean and lean.

Thoroughbreds stars Anya Taylor Joy (The Witch) as Lily, and Olivia Cooke (Me, Earl & The Dying Girl) as Amanda. The two teenagers are old childhood friends who have fucked up in various ways in their adolescence. These mistakes have landed them in each others company- which, for childhood friends who have grown apart, is the last place either wants to be. The two forge an unlikely, yet inevitable bonding, as a familiar Strangers On A Train-like plot sets into motion when we meet Lily’s disgusting stepfather Mark (a never better Paul Sparks).

The person who introduced the film described it as “Hitchock does Heathers.” That is accurate. It is a caustic and hilarious look at the upper class teenage drama of the Connecticut coast. Where mansions overlooking the Long Island sound are mere backdrop and everybody goes horseback riding. Empathy is a serious inconvenience in this world- and Amanda is a girl who has just stopped embraced that. She has a more severe and immediate problem- with some pressing legal issues that reflect a possible sociopathy in her personality. Yet she is probably the most honest person in the film. She speaks only in truths- and in this world of the 1%, that has severely isolated her.

Speaking of sane people, Anton Yelchin makes an appearance in his last film role, as Tim- a perpetrator of statutory rape, weed dealer, and sad sack who the girls rope into their scheme. Tim is introduced as a gross potential villain, but by the end is perhaps the film’s most sympathetic character. It hit me hard watching this that he had passed away last year. He had been making such brilliant choices lately- between this, Green Room, and Only Lovers Left Alive, he had proven himself as both a leading man and certified scene-stealer.

Director Cory Finley makes a remarkably confident debut here. He seems in total control of the film at all times. He blends plenty of tried and true territories- the teen film, the nerve shattering music stylings of a Punch Drunk Love, Hitchcock of course- but makes it his own. The film is littered with brilliant little touches I never would have imagined. A life size chess board plays brilliantly as a bizarre visual gag. A heavily anticipated text message gets a correlating sound effect. There is even a reference to Swimfan, that masterpiece of early 00’s teen thriller cinema.

We can expect more great things from everyone involved here- and for Yelchin, he went out on top. If this film gets the desired audience and finds a good place on streaming, it could live on for decades as a canonical teen movie. That would be lovely- because not only is it a great movie, it is a movie. It is the kind of passionately crafted and refined piece of work that would hopefully get teens interested more in the art of cinema- beyond the Marvel or Conjuring universes.

See Thoroughbreds  at the Philadelphia Film Festival on Sunday October 29 at 4:40 at the Ritz Five.

Up Next: The Florida Project, The Square, Lady Bird and more!

Author: Andy Elijah

I am a musician and music therapist who loves movies too. Raised in Maryland, I have been proud to call Philadelphia home for five years. Sounds can be heard at Baker Man and Drew. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd

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