An outlandish film about teenagers, a goat-raising stoner, and new age fanatics sounds like a potential disaster. And if you’re going to divide screen time between the Arizona desert and a prep school on the Eastern seaboard it had better be coherent, because you’re bound to alienate some folks and leave half the audience bewildered. With Goats, an adaptation of Mark Poirer’s novel and the first directorial outing from Christopher Neil, Neil dives in with unabashed enthusiasm and makes it coalesce with a cast of dependable middleweights and unknowns, as well as a predilection for weed. While there is no way to predict what will become part of the cult canon, if I were a voting party, I would give it a nomination.
We toss around the term “offbeat” to describe a cultural sensibility that is lauded by the minority and generally dismissed by the mainstream as quirky, offensive, or exceptionally bizarre. (I could provide a catalog of examples, but that would belabor the point.) Goats has some outré elements, yet it plays as a candid story about adolescent uncertainty and the fallout of divorce. Ellis (Graham Phillips) is a stolid fifteen-year-old living in a Western estate with his eccentric mother Wendy (Vera Farmigia) and a bong-ripping washout who has been crashing in the backyard since he was a child. That would be Goat Man (David Duchovny), a pool cleaner and “botanist” who is both a father figure to Ellis and a questionable influence. Since Wendy is wrapped up in her deluded lifestyle of pseudoscience and mystic healing, Ellis is left to pay the bills and maintain sanity around the compound. Fortunately they have an inestimable trust fund in the bank, otherwise their share of Xanadu would surely collapse. It’s a convenient plot device, but one that is justified by the absentee father, who happens to be a successful entrepreneur.
To get out of Tucson, Ellis accepts admission to the elite boarding school his father once attended. Upon leaving, he’s more distraught about abandoning the kinship he shares with Goat Man and the crops that are freely availed to him than caring for his batty mother, who lets her sleazy boyfriend (Justin Kirk of the television series Weeds) move in while he’s gone. The school, meanwhile, offers tradition and discipline and a new kind of scholarship for Ellis. He takes up cross country at the behest of a teacher who catches him smoking and he devotes much of his time to studying. Whenever he goes to the library he sees a comely townie that works at the cafeteria and sneaks books out of the library. Their introduction is rather trite, falling back on that old book-scattering trope, and their entanglement is hardly developed, but it adds perspective to Ellis’s maturation. Though he’s the reliable adult at home, he knows nothing about the fairer sex.
Goats takes us through an entire school-year in a breezy hour and a half, skipping back and forth between settings with smooth transitions. Duchovny and Kirk are endlessly amusing, and even as the plot suffers from an unnecessary detour in the third act, I found myself grinning the whole time. The performances all around are first-rate, and the film is bolstered by a fine score composed by Jason Schwartzman. While it isn’t on the level of, say, Rushmore or Submarine, it could turn out to be one of the best coming-of-age films this year. As we all know, the adversity of adolescence can make for great entertainment, and Goats roams through its genre with charm to spare.