(2011)1.5Mark DemingSome movies fail in a grand, spectacular manner, loudly proclaiming how far they've run off the track at every turn, while some misfire so quietly that you can barely hear them implode. Christopher Neil's directorial debut Goats is a classic example of the latter phenomenon: It's a film that's technically well-crafted, stars some talented actors, and possesses a bit of genuine charm, but on nearly every level, it simply fails to mesh. Featuring a handful of improbable characters saying pointless things for no observable reason for 94 minutes, Goats is hardly the worst movie of recent memory, but it's difficult to recall one that so consistently and thoroughly misses its target.
Goats centers on Ellis (Graham Phillips), a 15-year-old boy from a remarkably broken home. Ellis' father Frank (Ty Burrell), who ran a number of successful furniture stores, left the family when Ellis was a baby, headed to the East Coast, and had a long string of relationships with sleazy younger women. Ellis' mother Wendy (Vera Farmiga), meanwhile, was left a hefty trust fund by her family and lives in the Southwest, where she seems more interested in new-age spiritual realignment than housekeeping, paying the bills, or her son.
Ellis' primary adult role model is Goatman (David Duchovny), a well-meaning but hazy pothead who takes care of Wendy's landscaping and cleans her pool in exchange for a place to sleep and a plot of land for growing marijuana. Goatman also has a pair of pet goats and takes them with him for "goat treks" in the mountains, where he shares his wisdom (such as it is) with Ellis, as well as the latest products of his marijuana patch. Ellis has been accepted to the upscale East Coast prep school where Frank studied years ago, and he quickly reveals himself as a product of both of his parents -- he's an enthusiastic stoner who doesn't fit in with most of his classmates (especially his socially inept roommate), but he's also bright, a dedicated student, and a natural on the school's cross-country team.
After visiting his father for the first time in years, Ellis discovers Frank has married a sweet and well-adjusted woman named Judy (Keri Russell), will soon be welcoming another child, and wants to make amends for being absent in his life. Meanwhile in Arizona, Wendy is living with Bennett (Justin Kirk), an arrogant bisexual "artist" who makes no secret of his dislike for Ellis, Goatman, and nearly everyone else. As Ellis tries to navigate his first steps towards adulthood and make sense of his conflicted feelings about his folks, he also finds himself falling for Minnie (Dakota Johnson), a young woman who works in the school's dining hall and is said to make extra money turning tricks with the upperclassmen.
Director Christopher Neil has worked as an acting and dialogue coach on several films of note, which makes the movie's largely indifferent acting and characterizations all the more puzzling. Most of the performances in Goats feel either blank or one-dimensional, particularly Graham Phillips as Ellis, who generally seems smug or apathetic as he struggles with his many family crises (and he looks more like a college sophomore than a high-school freshman). While David Duchovny is given a lot more to work with as Goatman, his eccentricities don't add up to a character, and his efforts to play stoned just make him seem like he doesn't know where he is or how he got there -- and not in a funny way. (It doesn't help that the goats upstage him at every turn.) And while Vera Farmiga embraces Wendy's strangeness with genuine enthusiasm, we never learn enough about her character to give context to her constant bursts of odd behavior. Ty Burrell delivers the film's most appealing performance as Frank; while he sometimes seems like a quieter and more introverted version of his geeky-dad character on Modern Family, he underplays effectively and he's the one person in Goats whose flaws seem real and relatable.
Screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier adapted the script from his own novel; the film's episodic nature and emphasis on character over narrative might have worked on the printed page, but it falls flat on the screen, full of dialogue that doesn't sound natural and scenes that often don't cohere into a satisfying story. And while cinematographer Wyatt Troll does fine work, giving the scenes in the Southwest a sunburned glow and the East Coast footage a cool but equally appealing look, director Neil seems incapable of shaping the material into a consistent or compelling pace (this movie may only be a bit over an hour and a half, but it sure feels a lot longer). The final product is a film in which the comedy generates no laughs, the drama doesn't engage the audience, and the characters inspire little more than a shrug. Goats isn't a total train wreck, but that's mainly because this particular engine never works up enough steam to make it out of the station.
A pot-smoking teen from an unstable background finds difficulty adjusting to life at an East Coast prep school despite maintaining a high GPA and excelling as an athlete. Raised by his single, New Age mother after his father abandons the family, 15-year-old Ellis Whitman (Graham Phillips) gains most of his wisdom from a marijuana-growing goat herder nicknamed Goat Man (David Duchovny). Later, upon enrolling in a renowned prep school, Ellis realizes he hasn't been given the proper tools to adjust to his new surroundings. Exceedingly smart and athletically gifted, Ellis gradually begins to grasp the concept of responsibility while contending with adults who place the utmost emphasis on personal accountability.