Christopher Neil’s Goats brings together an interesting mix of actors to create what ends up being an enjoyable film, for the most part. With the tagline “You can’t choose your family . . . or can you?” the film shows that biological father’s aren’t necessarily the only option when it comes to needing a man to look up to, but in the end there is always that connection that can’t be undone.
15 year-old Ellis Whitman (Graham Phillips, The Good Wife) is about to leave behind a life in Tuscon, AZ where his spiritually-guided mother lives frivolously off a trust fund, briefly mentioned in the opening narration, along with houseguest Goat Man (David Duchovny, The X Files). Goat Man looks like a homeless mess, and he would be if not for Ellis’ mother Wendy (Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air) and her generously letting him live in the pool house as long as he takes care of the pool and the gardening (and apparently her son). His real name is unknown as everyone either calls him Goat Man or Javier, which he admits is not his name. The former of the two comes from the fact that he owns goats and likes to take long treks with them out into the Arizona deserts, usually bringing Ellis along as well. His whole life is about new treks with the goats. There is no real plan, it’s just to see where you end up, is how Ellis’s opening narrative explains it.
Ellis is off to Gates Academy, a private school somewhere in the East Coast (aren’t they all?), the same place his estranged father also attended. Within the first few minutes of the film, it is apparent how dependent Wendy is with her son. Ellis takes care of paying the bills and all parental duties at the age of 15 while she self-medicates and doesn’t seem to truly appreciate him until he is gone. Once F***er Frank (the name Wendy uses in reference to her ex-husband) comes back into the picture, Wendy seems to miss her son even more all without ever bothering to pick up the phone and call him because it’s too “mainstream.”
Here in lies the central drama of the story, as Ellis reconnects with his father he struggles between being the person Goat Man has essentially raised him to be versus this new preppy cross-country running version that his father wants him to be.
Throughout the school year, Wendy’s new boyfriend Bennet is fueling her quirky/selfish behaviors while trying to get rid of Goat Man. However Bennet has a little secret that will eventually come out, but almost in passing. The way that storyline plays out sums up the film as a whole. It’s like Neil couldn’t quite decide what was worth more screen time, so certain elements like Bennet just play out in a “yeah, now that’s over” sort of way.
The film is beautifully shot and well-acted, specifically by Phillips and Duchovny, Goats makes audiences feel the tension and inner-struggle that Ellis goes through on his year of self-exploration. It takes hold of the goat trek metaphor that Goat Man keeps pushing subtly throughout its 94-minute runtime, as the journey Ellis takes throughout his first year of high school is in fact a new trek for him.
Neil even tries to address a love interest for Ellis, but it doesn’t quite play out the way many expect it would, which adds a nice twist to the plot, but it becomes so underdeveloped that you have to wonder why even bother with it.
Behind the charming moments Goats does display, it falls short in simplicity of itself. We have this young man going through this big life journey; despite the fact that before the film even begins he has already proven he is an older soul than 15.
Duchovny’s Goat Man is reminiscent of The Dude from The Big Lebowski, however he adds a much more refined, philosophical approach to the character as opposed to the bumbling and lazy Jeff Bridge’s character. In fact, some of the film’s best moments come from Duchovny and his ability to show that while he is the best role-model Ellis, even he can royally screw up (whether it’s with the cute girl next door or a sketchy trip to Mexico).
In the end, Goats doesn’t really end up anywhere other than back where it started. Ellis may be better rounded, but it leaves people wondering what journey they just went on. All in all, it is a strong attempt at a coming-of-age tale, but finds itself falling flat.
Goats is worth your time, especially if it’s between this film and Battleship, but it isn’t something you need to race out to