More location-scouted and photographed than directed and acted, Goats is a bland coming-of-age story with some pretty cinematography but little pulse. Clearly lacking confidence in his direction, first-time director Christopher Neil relies on author Mark Jude Poirier’s own episodic adaptation to carry the film. One gets the feeling throughout that that book was aided through the production process with kid gloves. But whatever deference was spoiled on Poirier, no one seems to have noticed that his novel isn’t inherently cinematic, and as such needed filmmakers who could translate it to the screen with more visual flair, more pronounced dramatic scenes, and a less lulling sense of pace.
Graham Phillips, as Ellis, the film’s 15-year-old main character, isn’t nearly emotive enough, registering somewhere between Matt Damon and moribund, and that’s even for a character who’s often more mature and conservative than anyone in his family, which includes his live-in father figure, Goat Man, played coolly by David Duchovny. When Ellis eventually leaves the Tucson home of his mother, Wendy (Vera Farmiga), the film trades in the pot-smoked, “vortex treat” atmosphere of hippie-chic Arizona for the proper manners and darker tones of Gates Academy, the same East Coast school that Ellis’s distant father, Frank (Ty Burrell), attended. When Ellis arrives at his father’s house for dinner with alcohol on his breath, Frank gets upset, but the film doesn’t really use this incident as a jumping-off point for a more substantial fight/discussion about their absent relationship. Instead, after a minute, Frank and his new, pregnant wife let the indiscretion go and Ellis soon goes back to his homework. This is why the film’s drama doesn’t get under the skin, because the characters’ problems aren’t consequential enough, or they’re completely underplayed, with Ellis’s magnanimity often making them feel beside the point. That, or the squabbling is used as unfunny comedy, as when the film cuts back to the shenanigans going on at Wendy’s house, where her gold-digging boyfriend, Bennett (Justin Kirk), is trying to edge out Goat Man to be the biggest deadbeat in the house.
If Goats, with its nicely dressed characters in upscale settings, were a magazine spread it would be worth picking up and looking at, but as a film it’s too superficial and uneventful to sustain much interest. By the time it’s finished spinning its wheels in the sand, Goats feels like it never took off because the characters never really faced any challenges, their lives being generally too comfortable for their failed relationships to disrupt it. It would be one thing if this kind of upper-middle-class satiety that forgives familial dysfunction were the point of Goats, but one gets the feeling that there was intended insight into these characters and that they were supposed to have learned something from their problems. Instead, they’re not that much different than Duchovny’s enigmatic character, who wanders the desert with goats.