Sweet and simple, almost to a fault, Goats tells a familiar story of a child at the center of a bitter feud between his long-since divorced parents. In his debut film, director Christopher Neil plays it safe (though this may not necessarily be a bad thing). In the end, a strong cast and the sweet and simple nature of the script (based on the novel by Mark Poirier) makes Goats a charming little indie tale worth the viewing.
The film begins with a shot of David Duchovny’s bum, although his unkempt beard may be the greater shock. Duchovny plays Goat Man and father figure to Ellis (Graham Phillips, CBS’s The Good Wife). Ellis is a young man from both the right and wrong side of the tracks—his father an absent, Ivy-league grad, and his mother, Wendy (Vera Farmiga), a hippie with a fondness for goat men. The relationship between Ellis, Goat Man and Wendy is compelling, but loses much of its strangeness when Ellis begins (and never stops) narrating the film and explaining away the quirks of his family life in Arizona. The story follows Ellis as he takes one giant leap away from his home (and his mother) into the unfamiliar terrain of Gates Academy, the East Coast prep school attended by his estranged father.
As Ellis embarks on this new journey, Goats begins to go the route of your prototypical coming-of-age movie. He’s different from the other boys (his mentor and best friend is a pot-smoking goat herder), but not that different. He rebels, but with little consequence. He hates his parents because he really loves his parents and craves their attention. Of course, the parents are still coming-of-age, as well (especially Wendy, who takes up with another young man, played gloriously and effectively by Weeds actor Justin Kirk), which complicates the process, but again—nothing especially shocking occurs. As Ellis comes to know and understand his father (who is now re-married to the simple, perfect wife, played by Keri Russell) he comes to understand himself better and his mother and, well, we know how the story goes.
Still, there’s something about Goats that makes the clichéd narrative almost forgivable. For one, each cast member delivers a solid performance, although it would have been nice to see someone go over-the top a bit. (Granted, this might have been difficult in what is, in many ways, a stoner comedy.) Duchovny, Phillips, Farmiga, and Burrell stay true to their roles, but few risks are taken and even the lovely visage of Anthony Anderson is under-utilized in a film that could have used a few more laughs. If anyone takes it there, it’s Farmiga, who represents a generation of mothers so afraid of being prototypical (asking questions like, “So, I should really just be mainstream?”) they lose their children. (Her healing vortex workshop is another woman’s corporate career, and the end result—resentful children—is the same.)
Goats may not be the most awe-inspiring work of cinematic magic—notions of childhood and parenthood are neither deconstructed nor reimagined—and this is a bit of a disappointment; however, Christopher Neil has successfully constructed an even-paced story that points to the tending of the family, in all its stubborn, willful (and yes, goat-like) glory. Should he decide to take a few more risks on his next feature, audiences will be in for a treat.
Director: Christopher Neil
Writer: Mark Poirier
Starring: David Duchovny, Graham Phillips, Vera Farmiga
Release Date: Aug. 10, 2012