Perhaps it’s the continuing influence of “The Catcher in the Rye,” but newbie directors too often gravitate toward quirky coming-of-age tales involving New England prep schools, and though Christopher Neil’s “Goats” begins in Arizona and periodically returns there, it follows the lamentable pattern. Mark Jude Poirier’s adaptation of his novel doesn’t have anything new to say, but tries to disguise that by adding some oddball business involving a bearded slacker and the titular animals, which prove better company than many of the humans in the cast.
The protagonist is Ellis (Graham Phillips), a fifteen-year old who lives in the desert outside Tucson with his well-to-do, indolent single mom Wendy (Vera Farmiga), long divorced from his father Frank (Ty Burrell), the ex-husband she utterly loathes. Devoted to self-help workshops and other New Agey pursuits, the self-absorbed woman simultaneously dotes on her son and overlooks his emotional needs. In the absence of Frank, whom Wendy’s kept from her son, Ellis has found a substitute in Javier (David Duchovny), also known as Goat Man, the scruffy, pot-loving groundskeeper with whom he shares copious amounts of weed as well as time out in the wilderness with Javier’s beloved goats.
For some reason Ellis has decided to go east for his studies, and even more oddly chosen his hated father’s old prep school. Arriving there, he finds his roommate is Rosenberg (Nicholas Lobue), a chunky kid from Washington D.C. who proves both needy and troublesome, being the reason, for example, that Ellis is compelled to join the track team led by a coach (Anthony Anderson) who catches them smoking. The fact that Frank ran cross-country as a student is something that comes up regularly.
The process of maturation for the lad includes familiar elements. His mother’s involvement with an obnoxious (and much younger) kept man (Justin Kirk) is one of the factors in Ellis’ decision to visit Frank (Ty Burrell) in Washington over Thanksgiving, much to Wendy’s dismay. And he finds his father not only happily remarried to Judy (Keri Russell) but with a baby on the way—as well as a pretty good guy. He also gets infatuated with local gal Minnie (Dakota Johnson), a cafeteria worker with whom he shares literary interests, but is hesitant to approach her because of rumors that she’s overly free with her favors to generous students. On a trip home he finds Javier involved in an unseemly hook-up with next-door neighbor Aubrey (Adelaide Kane) and is further disappointed when he goes off with Goat Man on a trip to Mexico that proves to have a purpose far less high-minded than he believed. And, of course, back in the dorm his friendship with Rosenberg waxes and wanes.
The result is a movie that isn’t terrible, but—apart from the goat fixation and Duchovny’s zonked-out turn—doesn’t offer much that hasn’t been done elsewhere, and often better. Otherwise the cast is variable. Farmiga, Kirk and Kane go the caricature route, while Burrell, Russell, Anderson and Johnson are more restrained. Phillips is a handsome kid, but his lethargic, monotonous performance strikes no sparks, and he seems positively comatose beside Lobue. The goats are agreeable enough companions. Technical credits are mostly okay, though Wyatt Troll’s cinematography gets blurred in some of the night scenes.
Neil’s “Goats” isn’t bad enough to get yours, but neither does it offer many surprises. The director should probably leave the comfortable environs of preppiedom next time around.