Sundance 2012: GOATS Review

     January 27, 2012

I don’t really care if teenagers learn life lessons anymore.  The coming-of-age genre has become as stolid as the rom-com, but the coming-of-age movies still get a pass because they’re done under the auspices of being indie and artistic.  Goats makes an odd trade-off for the genre.  The movie doesn’t pack its main character full of quirks, but instead of growing as a person, he goes from a mostly-boring kid to a completely-boring kid.  All the quirks are for the one-dimensional characters who have almost no impact on his life.  The only fascinating thing about Goats is the values it preaches.

Ellis (Graham Phillips), a young stoner and generally uninteresting fellow, is going off to his estranged father’s prep school and big changes are on the way for the 15-year-old.  He’s going to be leaving behind his stoner-friend/father-figure/gardener “Goat Man” (David Duchovny) in Tucson as well as his useless hippie mother Wendy (Vera Farmiga) and her new jerk boyfriend Bennett (Justin Kirk).  At prep school, Ellis learns his straight-arrow father Frank (Ty Burrell) and his new wife Judy (Keri Russell) aren’t so bad.  Meanwhile, unrelated character drama keeps happening in Tucson between Goat Man, Wendy, and Bennett.


Goats has no idea what it wants to be about beyond “growing up and being responsible is good.”  Ellis isn’t even that much of a problem child.  He has daddy issues (of course), but he’s pretty much the ideal kid.  He knows his mom can’t take care of herself so he takes money out of the family’s trust fund and pays the bills for several months so she won’t have to worry about them.  When he’s at school, he excels at his studies and athletics.  The only “immature” thing about him is that he likes to smoke weed.  But in order for Ellis to be responsible and put childish things away, he must first put down the bong.  Real men just say no.

These indie coming-of-age tales usually carry a liberal viewpoint (or they’re politically netural), but Goats breaks the mold by going conservative.  Ellis is a good kid who likes to smoke pot.  He rarely gets in trouble at school (and only because his roommate (Nicholas Lobue) is a pain in the ass) and gets straight As.  But because he likes to get high on the marijuana, he will never achieve his true potential of being a tight-ass preppie.  The character’s journey is to have him turn away from damn hippies like his mom and Goat Man and leave those childish people behind.


In Ellis’ old life, Wendy jumps from new age treatment to new age treatment, and Goat Man is just a wandering symbol who serves as Ellis’ surrogate while the kid is at prep school.  Meanwhile, Ellis’ straight-edge father is a likable, responsible guy with a nice house, upstanding values, and in a loving relationship as opposed to Ellis’ mom who is shacking up with a parasite.  If Ellis turned away from the marijuana, he could leave those losers in Tucson behind and be boring like his pa!

I loathe leading characters who are loaded up on quirks as an excuse for a personality, but there’s not one interesting thing about Ellis.  Phillips doesn’t bring anything to the role and it’s as if the filmmakers looked at him and thought “We like Logan Lerman and you’re close enough.”  With the exception or Burrell, the supporting cast plays up their single quirk because they’re nothing more than caricatures.  Burrell at least gets to do a serious break from his memorable Modern Family character, and comes off a likable guy who is also struggling to make amends for being out of touch with his son.


I have to give Goats a little credit.  As the story swung between Ellis’ boring story and Goat Man’s quirky life, I couldn’t understand the point.  It seemed like an automatic festival entry by virtue of being a coming-of-age indie dramedy with some recognizable names in the lead cast.  If the movie wasn’t dull, contrived, poorly paced, and a waste of a talented cast, it would be a pretty neat spin on the genre.  There’s a fun irony in having an indie break the mold so it can tell young people how to fit the mold.

Rating: D+

For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:

  • Jeff

    Please spell “Tucson” correctly next time so that I can take your reviews seriously.

    • Matt Goldberg

      Fixed! You can take my reviews seriously now.

  • excpired

    Ironic though that the mold now is to be a stoner-loser with no future, sleeping around, getting drunk, etc. Being a good person who does what he/she is supposed to is the equivalent to rebelling against society because it is the exact opposite of what society is asking of us. Even if our parents still want us to be good children, the world doesn’t.

  • Phil

    I don’t think we even screened the same movie. The crowd loved this film and my wife and I both agreed that in both style and substance Goats had the goods. Of course Hollywood would pan a film for being about the correct choices. Perhaps if Ellis would have been into some real hardcore perversion you might have liked it better. What a garbage review.

  • Martin

    Did we see the same film??? I was totally engaged by this movie, the characters, the storyline, the cinematography, the acting–as was everyone else in the audience (except the reviewer, it seems). This was one of the first films I’ve seen in ages, and I see A LOT of movies, where I felt really good about spending time with the characters, and continued to feel good afterwards. I thought the young man playing the lead was exceptional. Maybe the reviewer has simply seen too many dark films, or else is completely cynical about life and its possibilities. I saw it in a venue at Sundance, and it felt like I was seeing a movie with a ton of close friends–that’s how much everyone around me was enjoying themselves. I will go see it again when it comes out in theaters.

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