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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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