Editor’s note: Goats lands in limited this week, determined to gnaw on theater chairs, popcorn buckets, and actual moviegoers, so give our Sundance review a read before heading into that situation. This review was originally published on January 27, 2012.
Ellis (Graham Phillips) has grown up in a less-than-average household. Ellis lives in Tuscon, Arizona with his mother Wendy (Vera Farmiga), a free spirit who relies on Ellis to make sure their bills are paid on time while she seems to still be “finding herself.” Add to this Goat Man (David Duchovny), who tends to their pool and garden (as well as his own “garden”) and lives on the property with, you guessed it, his goats. Despite this rather unusual upbringing, Ellis seems more than well-adjusted and the film focuses on his recent decision to attend an East Coast prep school, Gates Academy, which his father Frank (Ty Burrell) also attended. Considering Wendy refers to Frank as “Fucker Frank,” it is clear this decision is not one she is happy about.
Although you would expect a typical “fish out of water” story based off this premise when Ellis arrives at the more uptight Gates Academy, pressured to change his ways from goat trekking to cross-country running, he is surprisingly agile and quickly fits into his new surroundings without too much friction. Now on the East Coast, Frank reaches out to Ellis and invites him to his house in Washington, D.C. for Thanksgiving. After reluctantly accepting Frank’s offer, Ellis’ laid back persona starts to give way as a suddenly strict father figure enters into his life.
Goats is, at its core, a coming-of-age story for all the characters involved, not just Ellis. Goat Man eventually realizes he needs to grow up (and shaves his beard and long hair to prove it), Wendy finally gains some self-respect and kicks her deadbeat (possibly gold-digging) boyfriend Bennett (Justin Kirk) out while Frank, perhaps thanks to becoming a father for the second time with his current wife Judy (Keri Russell), finally eases up on Ellis and realizes the two have more in common than he may have first realized (and may have been the reason he was so hard on him.) While the characters do change and grow, it is almost like watching a child learn to walk or tie their shoes – you know these are things they need to, and eventually will do, but watching these characters get there with no real weight was unfulfilling.
First-time director Christopher Neil guides his cast through the motions, never setting up real stakes or conflicts that the characters must overcome. There is nothing glaringly wrong with Goats, but there is also nothing that particularly stands out. Considering Neil was working with such a strong cast, the film is more disappointing than anything. And when Duchovny is playing someone known as Goat Man and is less than engaging, something is off.
The Upside: Phillips delivered a performance that was both believable and natural, and might be another reason to start watching The Good Wife.
The Downside: An interesting idea that played surprisingly bland, despite the talented cast. The scenes of Russell trying to mediate the strained relationship between Ellis and Frank were the most interesting, but all too brief.
On the Side: Would tract housing really allow someone to own (and breed) goats on their property?