Coming of age stories are the bread and butter of independent cinema. They don’t require any snazzy CGI-effects, no big name actors or their $20 million salaries, and the only “buzz” created is through good ol’ word of mouth, not a multi-faceted, multi-media campaign blitz. It’s the sort of back to basics film-making that is necessitated by the budgets available to unproven directors: simple universal stories, simple old-fashioned techniques.
While more story-oriented movies are a nice change of pace from bloated, marketing-driven franchise films, “independent films” have become just as much a commodity as any of the summer tentpole films. Sundance, IFC, Sony Pictures Classic, and the rest of their ilk are all brand names that conjure up particular (and more important, sellable) images. The social outcast protagonist, usually stuck in some existential ennui, surrounded by an assortment of Carroll-esque kooks, pulling the hero in this or that unexpected direction, is more or less the typical plot synopsis.
While these films can become virtually indistinguishable from one another, the measuring stick that separates the Little Miss Sunshines from the Sunshine Cleanings, The Kids Are All Rights from the Everything Must Gos, the 50/50s from the It’s Kind of a Funny Storys, usually comes down to two elements: the writing and the acting. No matter how familiar a scenario may seem, no matter how well-tread a plot device may be, if a writer puts just the right spin on the situation, or an actor embodies a prototypical character in a unique and interesting fashion, the film can seem as fresh as a warm cookie out of the oven.
The question is then, which side of these cinematic tracks does Goats reside in?
Let’s start with the writing.
The story’s central figure is Ellis (Graham Phillips), a 15-year-old boy living a listless life in the deserts of Tuscon, Arizona with his self-involved, New Age-obsessed mother Wendy (Vera Farmiga). Along with his spaced-out mother and himself, a house guest simply referred to as Goat Man (David Duchovny) also cohabits the same living area, serving as a spiritual mentor of sorts to Ellis by taking him on long treks through the desert with the ever-present goats.
Despite his genuine love for both his mother and Goat Man, Ellis rightfully senses the stagnant opportunity for growth in his current situation. He decides then to attend an East Coast prep school that his father, Frank (Ty Burrell), a man he hasn’t seen in years and who has since started another family, had graduated from as a teenager. Of course, once at the prep school, Ellis goes through life changing experiences, including reconnecting with his father along with his new step-mother Judy (Keri Russell), that give him a better understanding of not only who his loved ones really are, but who he himself is as a human being. In other words, the same stuff you’ve seen in countless coming-of-age stories before.
Now, I would easily be willing to forgive the all-too familiar nature of the plot if the writing was sharp and insightful, but unfortunately, for the most part, it is not. Based on a novel of the same name, Goats runs into the frequent problems of films adapted by the novelists themselves. It is clear that Mark Jude Poirier, both author and screenwriter of the novel and film, is simply too close to the material to make the tough editing decisions necessary when translating from the written word to the moving image.
At a relatively short 94 minutes, this film is still chock full of unnecessary moments. Little asides with characters back in Tuscon, such as Goat Man, I’m sure serve as perfect tempo breakers in a book where drastic changes in scenery work much better in the chapter-to-chapter format. In a movie however, these short glimpses of life back in Tuscon only serve as needless distractions from the point at hand.
Even worse is the fact that these moments, typically trying to fill the role of comic relief, are cringe-inducingly unfunny. The characters are frequently used as comedic rag dolls, playing to the broadest comedic range possible for this type of movie (people getting punched in the face, a man’s testicle squeezing out of a tight speedo). All this serves only to awkwardly punctuate the more touching mood the rest of the movie works so carefully to curate, and first-time director Christopher Neil (a distant relative of Francis Ford Coppola) appears to be either unable or unwilling to focus the movie in the correct direction.
This uneven and unskilled mix of drama and comedy is an increasingly occurring phenomenon in the world of indie cinema (The Descendants is a big example that comes to mind). It is especially regrettable in Goats because on the dramatic side things, the film actually performs pretty well. When focused on Ellis and his life in the prep school, Poirier’s writing, while not earth-shattering, is a grade above descent. Characters such as the fat, self-doubting roommate and the mysterious, slightly older crush/love interest are a bit cliche, but they still serve their purpose, and the scenes of the strained relationship between Ellis and his long-absent father are especially strong. When it works, the film gathers your interest and hopes, but time and again it is only a matter of moments before you’re rolling your eyes at some stupid scene or line of dialogue.
The film’s performances are a mixed bag as well, although the key role of Ellis is filled rather nicely. Trying to find the adolescent leads for these coming of age stories must be a daunting task for the cast directors, but in this case, they did good with Graham Phillips. Phillips manages to balance the straight-man routine without drifting into the dull protagonist territory, a much more challenging task than most people perceive it to be.
The film’s supporting thespians don’t escape so unscathed though. Vera Farmiga, playing the narcissistic, hippie mom, writhes and moans through much of her performance. Farmiga has been very impressive in other films such as The Departed and Up in the Air, and I don’t envy the task she was given trying to humanize this character, but the flamboyant caricature she produces is at least partially her responsibility (although I’d say the writing is more to blame). David Duchovny is also peculiarly flat, which is pretty ironic given the fact that he’s playing a character named Goat Man.
The stand outs from the supporting players (which again is likely correlated to the writing) are Ty Burrell, playing Ellis estranged father Frank, and Keri Russell, playing Ellis step-mother Judy. Their performances are easily the most naturalistic and believable of the cast, and whenever they appear on screen, you know you’re safe from anything too wince worthy for at least a moment.
This is probably going to come off as a little harsh, but Goats is an instantly dispensable movie. It has its highs and its lows, its strengths and its weaknesses, and both are very noticeable, but in the end it all comes out a wash. Nothing gained, nothing lost, just a prime example of what people love and hate about indie cinema, and everything that goes with it.