Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival
Several fine performers end up mostly spinning their wheels in Goats, a boilerplate coming-of-age story from director Christopher Neil. The cast is chock full of likable people: David Duchovny, Vera Farmiga, Ty Burrell, Justin Kirk, and Keri Russell all turn up, and all are appealing. Neil’s direction is smooth and professional; screenwriter Mark Poirier (adapting his novel) pens some quotable lines. But it doesn’t add up to much; it’s a wisp of a movie, gone by the time you’re out of your seat.
The Good Wife’s Graham Phillips stars as Ellis, the product of a long-broken marriage. Mother Wendy (Farmiga) is a New Ager with a trust fund, constantly looking for a new guru or spiritual plan; Father Frank (Burrell) has remarried and moved far away, leaving as Ellis’s primary father figure the wistfully-named Goat Man (Duchovny, in a not-altogether-convincing long wig and fake ZZ-Top beard). Goat Man has lived on Wendy’s property as long as anyone can remember, doing the landscaping and pool upkeep, growing weed, and occasionally taking off on long “treks” with Ellis and his goats.
That idyllic, free-spirited life is coming to a close for Ellis, however, who is going off to the exclusive prep school his father attended. Over the course of the year, needless to say, lessons are learned—about his relationships with his parents, about his trust of Goat Man, about (of course) himself. There’s not much in it you haven’t seen before, though it’s wittily acted and handsomely mounted (the lovely cinematography is by Wyatt Troll, who’s got a clean sense of composition, particularly in images of solitude and loneliness, of which there are many).
And there is a girl, of course: Lovely Minnie (Dakota Johnson), who works in the school cafeteria. Their near-courtship ends up an utterly deadening subplot, filled with trite, done-to-death scenes; they first meet, no kidding, when they bump into each other and she drops her books (yes, that old scene), while her love for literature ensures the whispering-through-the-stacks at the school library scene that I never, ever need to see again.
As mentioned, the performances are enticing. Duchovny is an actor who all but oozes warmth and affability, both of which are plenty welcome in this role, while Farmiga dodges the clichés of her rather stock character by honing in on the rough edges. Burrell and Russell don’t get much to do, though they make the most of their limited screen time, and Kirk is at his wry smuggest (which is saying something).
But it’s hard to work up any real stakes here. Ellis is a nice enough kid, and likable, but we’re not all that concerned with his troubles—there’s not much doubt, in a movie like this, how things are going to turn out, and while Phillips is clearly a capable actor, he’s not able to give Ellis the spin necessary to truly invest an audience. Things get particularly clunky in the third act, when you can all but hear the narrative gears grinding under the dialogue. Goats is a perfectly nice movie, and an utterly forgettable one.