- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Image Entertainment
Reviewed by Ezra Stead
hristopher Neil's debut feature, “Goats,” begins promisingly, with a series of beautiful nature shots of the Sonoran desert area near Tucson, Arizona, where most of the film takes place. Then the voiceover narration begins and we're off on a familiar coming-of-age story, albeit flavored with its own idiosyncratic quirks. It's sort of like a less stylized Wes Anderson film, or a more shallow and annoying take on the material found in Noah Baumbach's “The Squid and the Whale.” Burr Steers’ “Igby Goes Down” is another good reference point, but where those films tended to skewer the pretensions of the upper-class intellectual elite, “Goats” opts instead to take on New Age hippie nonsense, with middling results.
Ellis (Graham Phillips) is a 15-year-old kid raised by his trust-funded hippie mother, Wendy (Vera Farmiga), in a gorgeous ranch home in Tucson. However, since Wendy is generally absent due to one trumped-up “spiritual quest” or another, not to mention a series of generally worthless boyfriends, Ellis has gotten most of his actual parental guidance from her gardener, Goat Man (David Duchovny). Goat Man, also known as Javier, is a long-haired, bearded marijuana cultivator who takes Ellis with him on his frequent goat treks – long journeys into the desert with no preconceived destination and only goat's milk and pot for sustenance – and provides him with a sort of father figure more or less as useful in the real world as his absentee mother.
This lifestyle changes drastically for Ellis, however, when he enrolls at Gates Academy, an East Coast prep school that his estranged father, Frank (Ty Burrell), also attended. While on Thanksgiving vacation from the school, Ellis reconnects with Frank and meets his new wife (Keri Russell), and begins to rethink his feelings about his father, against whom Wendy has spent years poisoning his mind. His disconnection from Goat Man, Wendy and her new slime ball “artist” boyfriend, Bennett (Justin Kirk), also makes him rethink his whole life and what he really wants out of it. Meanwhile, Goat Man is having troubles of his own back at the house in Tucson, where Bennett is doing his best to get rid of him and take his place as the resident freeloader, using Wendy's predilection for New Age ridiculousness to drive a wedge between her and her old friend.
“Goats” is reasonably entertaining and has a few especially funny moments – particularly a brief but recurring gag involving Bennett's ill-fitting swimsuit – but it never really gives its audience a lot to care about or root for. Bennett is clearly the bad guy of the film, but the rest of the characters aren't that much more likable for the most part. Wendy, in particular, is exceptionally annoying, and we're invited to laugh at her silliness, but the film is less successful when we're meant to empathize with her in any way. Ellis is likewise hard to relate with, and he has a sort of selectively self-righteous morality that seems to pop up whenever the film needs to create some dramatic tension. His roommate and default best friend at Gates (Nicholas Lobue is an obnoxious, self-centered twerp, so the story arc between the two of them generates little sympathy.
Goat Man is the most enjoyable character, and Duchovny's performance is certainly a highlight of most of the film's best scenes. However, he is relegated to a supporting player, and his subplots generally go nowhere interesting or unexpected. Likewise, the always delightful Anthony Anderson has a glorified cameo as Gates Academy's track coach, who blackmails Ellis into joining the team, and manages to light up the screen in the handful of brief scenes in which he appears. Unfortunately, the film chooses to focus on the much less interesting and unusual family conflicts of Ellis, as well as a mostly predictable romantic subplot with Minnie (Dakota Johnson), a beautiful townie who works in the school's cafeteria. She returns his affections without any real effort on his part, and though their romance has a rather unexpected denouement, its contrivance is evident and the moment rings false. This is the problem with “Goats” as a whole – it tries too hard to feel genuine and, despite some enjoyable moments and beautiful landscape shots, it ultimately falls flat.