As far as quirky coming of age stories engineered for festivals and the twee aspiring directors who love them go, “Goats” is a fine little movie. Directed by newcomer Christopher Neil from a script by Mark Poirier, who adapted his own novel, it follows a teenager struggling to deal with his estranged parents as he tries to find a place for himself, but it’s also not really about anything at all, or at least anything original. In fact, it’s the kind of entertainment that’s familiar and pleasant enough that you easily forget that nothing much is happening on screen, which may admittedly be damning it with faint praise. But in a cinematic environment already well-stocked with so many tales of teenagers taking their first steps toward finding their own identity, “Goats” feels like the descendant of a family with an incredible pedigree who decided it was enough to live off of that legacy instead of trying to build anything new upon it.
Graham Phillips (“Evan Almighty”) plays Ellis, an Arizona teenager living with his trust-fund hippie mom Wendy (Vera Farmiga) and her live-in gardener, Goat Man (David Duchovny), who alternately serves as a laid-back father figure and pot supplier. But after he takes up an offer to attend the same prep school his father Frank (Ty Burrell) attended during his adolescence, Ellis finds himself torn between his loyalty to Wendy and his newfound connection to his father, whose new wife Judy (Keri Russell) seems to understand him better than either of his biological parents. In the meantime, he quickly realizes that he’s not the only kid who’s having trouble with his parents – his roommate Barney (Nicholas Lobue) can’t even get his mom to stay with him for Thanksgiving – and starts to reconsider the attention, however unpredictable, that Wendy and Frank give him. As he struggles to find his place among all of these parental figures, Ellis slowly begins to establish himself as an adult, discovering that love and other grown-up opportunities that he wants to take advantage of aren’t quite as glamorous or exciting as he once thought.
According to a Q&A conducted after a screening of the film at Sundance, Neil spent ten years getting this film made, and it’s admirable that he devoted so much time and effort bringing to the screen a story that was so important to him. Unfortunately, he doesn’t manage to convince his audience that it should be important to them: notwithstanding the evergreen appeal of a coming-of-age story, everything in the film seems sort of numbingly obvious, and much of its “conflict” (such as it is) arises from the fact that either by virtue of age or disposition, Ellis doesn’t speak up about the things that are bothering him. Wendy, for example, is a perfectly selfish, and self-righteous new-ager who literally does nothing but speak in florid philosophical terms, but she is so consistently incapable of thinking of anything in any other terms than how it impacts her that it’s actually a small triumph that Neil avoids completely vilifying her, even if the audience ultimately adopts Ellis’ frustration that he can’t connect with her.
Overall, however, the biggest problem may not be the movie’s fault – namely, that the experiences of teenagers growing up is mostly the same, and it’s really only how that experience is portrayed that distinguishes successful coming of age stories from unsuccessful ones. And even for a self-possessed kid who inadvertently is more of a parent than either of his biological ones, what Ellis goes through is unexceptionally familiar – he goes off on his own for the first time, he becomes increasingly aware of his parents’ foibles, he develops feelings for a girl, and he starts to figure out the way the world works. But otherwise, the film sort of moves along at an engaging but hardly deeply involving pace, features solid performances, and mostly distracts you from the fact that nothing’s really going on on screen other than what the rest of us deal with – real life – which sadly isn’t enough.
Again, however, the actors do a consistently good job of fulfilling the demands of their roles, starting with Phillips as Ellis, a kid whose lack of expressiveness plays to the film’s benefit, since his character has a rich interior life but less outward expression of it. Vera Farmiga, one of the most talented and authentic performers in Hollywood, continues an oddly disappointing trajectory in roles that demand so much less than she’s capable of giving to a role, but she manages to depict Wendy without sympathy or sentimentality, and quite frankly it’s exactly what that character needs. As Goat Man, Duchovny seemed to have the greatest latitude to play his character as a cartoonish, pot-growing hippie, but the actor gives him a really engaging sense of pragmatism and intelligence that makes the character likeable – and more than that, a worthy father figure for a character who oddly wants one without necessarily needing him. And Ty Burrell continues to prove himself to be one of the most reliable character actors in the business as Frank, a father whose conventionalism prevented him from seeing his son, but who is smart enough to learn from his experiences and make the effort to connect with this kid once again.
Overall, it’s not that Neil’s directorial debut is boring or even disappointing, it’s that it’s just unexceptional – almost exactly the sort of dime-a-dozen growing-up story that’s become a Sundance/ independent film world cliché. Mind you, it’s well-directed and acted, and everyone involved should be proud of the solid work they did in the film. But without something more distinctive than a would-be dad stand-in named Goat Man, “Goats” is standing on the shoulders of its coming-of-age predecessors, adding nothing except a reminder that every generation goes through the same thing – evidently, cinematically as well as personally. [C+]