“Goats” isn’t a film filled with great adventures or hugely emotional scenes. Yet in its own quiet way, this is a very effecting drama about a teenage boy buffeted by starkly contrasting role models from the adult world.
Director Christopher Neil (in his feature debut no less) and writer Mark Jude Poirer, adapting his own novel to the screen, very often go against the usual grain for dramatic films: No big attention-getting opening, an ending that is more like a beginning and not everything gets explained away.
Rather the film concentrates on its very human characters, their foibles and vulnerabilities. It’s richly rewarding in ways even indie adult movies rarely are these days.
The film does itself no favors with the title “Goats.” Yeah, there are goats and even a Goat Man. But “Goats” doesn’t tell you what you’re in for. Let’s hope the movie finds its deserving audience.
The young protagonist is 15-year-old Ellis (Graham Phillips), who lives with his New Age-hippie mom Wendy (Vera Farmiga) in a comfy, rambling desert home outside Tuscon. It may look like a strange existence for a youth, so isolated from kids his own age, but he seems well adjusted to the life.
One thing that perhaps helps is a pot-growing and smoking sage everyone calls either Javier or Goat Man (David Duchovny). He lives in the pool house in exchange for overseeing the landscaping and cleaning the pool.
Meanwhile his mom is forever exploring her inner life through self-help regimens, various gurus and vortexes. She also has acquired a new boyfriend Bennett (Justin Kirk) and right away the other men in the household sense a hustler.
Ellis’ divorced dad has nothing to do with his life yet, strangely, Ellis chooses to go away to the same East Coast prep school his dad once attended. He does well there, earning straight A’s and even helping a floundering roommate (Nicholas Lobue) who lacks study skills.
His main unhappiness comes in the lack of communication from Goat Man and his failure to ship pot to an otherwise deprived Ellis.
Then his dad sends him an airline ticket to come to his house for Thanksgiving. They struggle to reconnect, as Frank (Ty Burell) mistakes aloofness and nerves for rebellion, but his much younger wife Judy (Keri Russell) sees who Ellis is much more clearly.
So for a school year the movie ping-pongs among the prep school, the father and mother’s homes along with the Goat Man’s treks and sometimes sagacious commentary on his life.
Ellis is actually something of a moralist but without an adult sensibility. He disapproves of many things he finds in the adult world but doesn’t always reason things through or fully grasp all aspects of those situations he frowns upon.
Like I said, there are no big epiphanies here. Rather Neil and Poirer present a bunch of characters who, other than the hero, are slightly off-center with their addictions to things such as spiritualism, phony boyfriends, booze (in the roommate’e case) or pot itself.
In their midst is a boy trying to find his way and perhaps hook up (or not) with a girl (Dakota Johnson) who works at the school. Tellingly, when the movie ends, you want it to continue. At least into the next school year: What happens to everyone?
The looks of the relaxed Tuscon abode and the father’s somewhat formal D.C. area home by production designer Mark A. Duran couldn’t contrast more. Wyatt Troll’s cinematography finds great warmth in the desert while cool colors pervade the east coast scenes. A foray across the border into Mexico and a sleazy bar at night picks up almost noirish tones.
The actors all get into their characters well, finding rich details and emotional lives that sometimes never quite reach the surface. Only Kirk plays his role a little too obviously, but then that may be the film’s point: Wendy can’t see what should be brutally clear despite all her expensively gained self-help wisdom.
Her son may become her real teacher.
Opens: August 10, 2012 (Image Entertainment)
Production companies: A Red Crown Productions and Sandia Media production in association with the Arlook Group
Cast: David Duchovny, Vera Farmiga, Graham Phillips, Justin Kirk, Ty Burell, Keri Russell, Dakota Johnson, Anthony Anderson
Director: Christopher Neil
Screenwriter: Mark Jude Poirier
Based on the novel by: Mark Jude Poirer
Producers: Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Shannon Lail, Eric Kopeloff, Christopher Neil
Executive producer: Richard Arlook, Daniel Crown, Riva Marker, Peter Touche, Eva Maria Daniels, Peter Fruchtman, Juan Carlos Segura, Mike Saunders, Jai Stefan, Todd Traina
Director of photography: Wyatt Troll
Production designer: Mark A. Duran
Music: Jason Schwartzman, Woody Jackson
Costume designer: Kate DeBlasio
Editors: Jeremiah O’Driscoll, Kevin Tent
R rating, 94 minutes