No one sets out to make a bad movie. Somewhere along the line it just happens, whether it’s in the beginning with the script, the middle of production, problems with performances or in the editing room, and so on. I can’t pick one singular component that ruins Goats, it’s simply mediocre overall. Goats was based on a novel and adapted for the screen by the novelist, Mark Poirier. We’re not given much insight into the thoughts and feelings of the characters in the film, whereas in a novel I guess we’d get to overhear every intimate exchange and idle thought. In any case, I applaud the nerve of a filmmaker in this modern day and age who sets out to make yet another independent film about the endless boredom and petty problems of the rich and white.
Ellis (Graham Phillips) is a beautiful, rich white 15-year-old boy who has grown up entirely unremarkable, in Tucson, Arizona. His rich white mother (Vera Farmiga) dabbles in new age spirituality and a cycle of lame boyfriends (Justin Kirk as the latest), and Ellis’ apparent best friend is a strange man named Goat Man (David Duchovny), who has always lived with them, is the pool cleaner and grows pot on the property. Ellis’ father (Ty Burrell) left when he was young and Ellis is following in his footsteps by attending prep school on opposite side of the country. At prep school, Ellis adjusts to a new life without pot or his bizarre family and goats. He does school, turns out he’s smart. He runs cross country, turns out he’s fast. He is sort of vaguely interested in a Blonde Girl Who May or May Not Be A Prostitute (Dakota Johnson). His contact with drugs and alcohol suggests that it has been a somewhat boring constant in his life, thanks to his permissive mother and the pot-smoking influence of Goat Man. He doesn’t really care for his absent father. He worries about his crazy-pants mother. He is shown reading The Great Gatsby several different times. He visits his father. He visits his mother. Goat Man goes missing after they make a run to Mexico with the goats. School is lonely. Make it stop.
Ellis is distractingly beautiful and reacts to situations with the dull demeanor of someone who is accustomed to being accommodated. The world has thrown him a soft pass this time around, he’s a casual brainiac, a fantastic athlete, and so pretty he seems starkly out of place amongst the other humans with their stupidly grotesque regular person features. He is entirely disengaging as a main character as nothing really happens to him and he doesn’t feel it necessary to share much more than the baseline teenage angst that riddles Kristen Stewart’s performances of the past decade. Somewhere along the way, inscrutable staring became the new modus operandi. I get it, you’re bored. The problem is, I’m bored too.
A real exchange that takes place at one point, between Ellis and Blonde Girl Who May or May Not Be A Prostitute as they discuss how she’s reading some books, because she is crazy like that, and she is also mad coy about her favorite book.
Ellis: “What’s your first favorite book?”
BGWMOMNBAP: “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Exeunt, pursued by a bear. This conversation was deeply annoying to me, so paltry, so triflingly stupid, that teasing teenage bravado where you’re so sure that what you have to say is the most interesting thing to say ever, and that same bravado that makes you think that the entire world owes you attention, when in fact, nobody owes you anything. Nobody cares. If someone you’re purposefully trying to engage in conversation does you the courtesy of feigning interest in your ideas, don’t be too fucking good for it. In fact, almost every conversation in this movie feels as if it was transcribed directly from real life, as if the novelist thought “My God, this is good stuff here,” frantically scribbling down every mundane occurrence over Thanksgiving Vacation 1998, vowing to turn it into a script and show everybody the humbling truth of their own painful existence. While this works in other films, occasionally, here it simply feels befuddling. Not a comedy, not a tragedy and barely a drama.
The film was directed by Christopher Neil, whose greatest claim to fame so far is being an acting, dialogue and rehearsal coach in a bunch of other movies. Given the abjectly disappointing nature of most of the performances in this film I found that very strange indeed. Halfway through the movie I started mentally recasting every role, trying to find something that worked. The best I could come up with was changing the whole thing into a zanier comedy starring Michael Cera. Yeah, I didn’t say it was that much better.
Vera Farmiga is perfectly annoying as new-age spiritual mama Wendy, and Justin Kirk, Keri Russell and Ty Burrell deserve some accolades for being perfectly mundane in their respective roles, though it’s hardly their fault when there’s nothing worth saying in the script. However, David Duchovny is quite good as the bizarre live-in botanist, Goat Man. Why isn’t this movie more about him? How did these people come to be the way they are? What do they think about life? What will happen to them? Why do they dare to continue existing if everything is so, you know, ugh, whatever.
Goats isn’t moving, funny or beautiful. Like that friend of yours who is still waiting for their “real” life to begin, as they grow older and older, you can’t help but feel kind of bored with their menial and unrelenting growing-up drama. Movies can have incredible power and depth, shaking us to our core, awakening us to new worlds or radical ideas, or simply entertaining us well. Some films get the teenage years and the pains of growing up so right that you feel embarrassed for identifying so strongly with them. Goats is not one of them, and independent cinema of this sort is quickly becoming a free for all, do-what-ever-you-want fest, with no sort of barometer for differentiating an idea from a good idea.