What do we mean when we call a movie a 'cult classic'?

The impetus of my going to see Thoroughbreds was unique. It wasn’t because of a great trailer I saw, or any actor I love. It wasn’t any directing or writing or cinematographic talent behind the camera that drew me in. And it wasn’t any word-of-mouth buzz that brought me to the theater. Instead, my decision to check out this film resulted entirely from Facebook.

Social media in general, and Facebook specifically, are increasingly becoming the focal point for films’ ad campaigns; the push for Thoroughbreds on my news feed was particularly aggressive. The social media giant’s omniscient algorithm nailed me: the quick ads for this sardonic, violent indie flick about two teens plotting to kill one of the pairs’ step-dad was perfectly tailored to my taste. The quantity of ads thrown at me wasn’t what ultimately intrigued me, though, so much as the caption that came with the most commonly recurring ad: Thoroughbreds was endorsing itself on a line from The A.V. Club proclaiming the film a “future cult classic.”

Using this line is paradoxical: a “cult classic” is a film which, by definition, has acquired a cult following. To secure such a following requires passion, but also time: a film cannot be a cult classic upon its release. Further, it’s entirely antithetical to the whole concept of a cult status for the studio itself to be pushing the film as a cult classic. A film’s cult-ness, if you will, results from a democratic process in which fans join together to praise a film that was somehow missed or underappreciated by the bulk of society. If it comes from the people making the movie, the term is meaningless.

To anoint itself a cult classic, of course, is also just a shrewd way of saying that Thoroughbreds is a good movie, with the added signaling that only people of certain cinematic taste will appreciate it. The kind of people, for example, that Facebook is specifically targeting with its ads. Which got me thinking: what is that audience? When we describe a movie as a cult classic, who are we talking to?

A cursory Google search reveals a pretty clear pattern. Culling through ‘best cult film’ lists suggests two broad categories. The first category of films on such lists are kitschy, grimey genre films. This category includes the likes of Repo Man, A Clockwork Orange, The Evil Dead, Blade Runner, Reservoir Dogs, The Princess Bride, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These films are odd enough to be spurned by large audiences, but are able to speak to some lofty philosophical concept or underserved community with enough ingenuity to earn a gradual reverence.

The second category, and the one which seems to encompass most movies deemed “cult classic,” might best be described as focusing on disaffected white people. (To a certain degree, this also describes the films in the first category.) There are white people who feel out of place among the monied snobs around them, like American Psycho. There are white people who feel out of place because of their total lack of money, like Clerks or The Big Lebowski. There are white people who feel out of place in the high school pecking order, like Heathers, Dazed and Confused, Ghost World, or Mean Girls. There are white people who feel out of place because they reject the social conventions of the world around them, like Fight Club, Harold and Maude, or Office Space. There are white people who feel out of place because there is some truly weird shit going on with them, like Donnie Darko or Eraserhead. I could go on.

Could this simply be because most films are made by and starring white people, and only recently has there been any major progress for representation on screen? Maybe. But even under that assumption, there would be at least one movie with cult status on these lists with a lead black character, right? The closest we have might be the diverse cast of The Warriors, or the Blaxploitation genre as a whole. Anything other than stories about alienated white folks, though, is hard to come by.

Is this invalidating for these movies? I don’t think so. Most of these are great movies which missed out on recognition early on and later got the due they deserve. This phenomenon is less about the films on these lists than how we deploy the term itself. It’s indicative of who controls the conversation around movies: admittedly, people who look like me. To say that a movie has a ‘cult’ is to say it has a cult of cinephiles wise enough to deem the film an underappreciated gem; those cinephiles are almost universally white (and, for that matter, male).

Pointing this out doesn’t mean these movies are any lesser. But it does suggest that earning a ‘cult classic’ status is a different, more nefarious sort of signaling than it may appear on the surface. If films must be about disaffected white youth in order to be deemed cult classics, then the term is an exclusionary one.

Thoroughbreds wraps up with an interesting monologue, much more interesting than everything that came before it. It’s a fairly dull movie; Thoroughbreds has all of the angsty ennui of a typical cult high school movie, but without any of the passionate rebelliousness of something like Heathers, a film Thoroughbreds is clearly trying to channel. The closing monologue expounds on a dream sequence one of the main characters had, in which people are consumed by the Internet and forget about the rest of their lives. It’s vaguely a criticism of how the Internet affects modern youths’ understanding of the world.

The irony is that the film’s ad campaign falls prey to the same tendencies this speech might be critiquing. On our news feeds, we are stripped of context, or any sense of place or time. Instead we have an aggressive competition of self-promotion in which worth is determined by likes, pure and simple. Only in this realm can a movie immediately dub itself a ‘cult classic,’ when the term by definition requires time to earn it. Of course, as we’ve seen, it also needs to be a movie with a very narrow viewpoint as well.

Perhaps we need to move on from the term altogether, to something that not only says a film gained an underground following over time, but also one that includes a wider range of viewpoints on screen. To expand the range of films that got nominated for Best Picture, the Oscars had to expand its voting body to include a more diverse array of voices. In a similar way, the voices that encompass the theoretical ‘cult’ needs to expand as well, so that when we anoint our “future cult classics,” we’re not just simply consecrating films that look like what we’ve seen in the past.

Thoroughbreds: 2 stars