PARK CITY — Former acting coach and first-time director Christopher Neil struggles to shape Mark Jude Poirier’s novel Goats into a cogent feature, encumbered by a poorly-structured script and ineffective lead performances. With its name cast, the film could see continued festival invitations, but is likely to bypass theatrical for DVD or eventual cable programming.
Fifteen-year-old Ellis (Graham Phillips) lives in Tucson with his New-Age, trust-fund mom Wendy (Vera Farmiga) and is preparing to move to the East Coast and begin studying at prestigious Gates Academy, which his mostly absent father Frank also attended. Living in Wendy’s pool house is Javier, known to everyone as Goat Man (David Duchovny), who tends to the grounds (and a greenhouse full of weed) and raises goats, which he uses as pack animals on his frequent desert treks.
Despite his mom’s disapproval, Ellis is looking forward to Gates, where he meets his new roommate Barney (Nicholas Lobue), a chubby, struggling student and wanna-be track athlete. With few other distractions, Ellis excels at his studies, but after the track coach (Anthony Anderson) catches him smoking pot in the woods behind school, he’s forced to join the cross-country team in order to avoid getting reported.
When his dad invites him to Washington, DC for Thanksgiving, Ellis reluctantly accepts, meeting Frank’s pregnant new wife Judy (Keri Russell) and attempting to patch up his relationship with his father. Returning to school, he strikes up a tentative relationship with Minnie (Dakota Johnson), a girl who works in the school dining room.
As Ellis attempts to balance the competing relationships in his life, he realizes that moving forward into adulthood will require a careful selection of role models, given the eclecticism he’s grown up with.
Adapting his debut novel, Mark Jude Poirier’s script is distinctly episodic, neglecting to provide Ellis with a clear throughline or even any significant obstacles. Christopher Neil proves technically capable as a first-time director, but has no better ideas than his screenwriter about how to shape the narrative. Despite his acting background, Neil evinces minimal rapport with the actors, who often seem to be performing almost in isolation from one another.
Duchovny is the most effective among them, investing Goat Man with a congenial, enigmatic character. Farmiga goes through the paces in her New-Agey role, adding little to already well-established stereotypes. A series regular on The Good Wife, Phillips appears out of his depth in a feature film role, bringing little beyond what’s already on the page.
A coming-of-age story without any clear epiphany, Goats meanders rather aimlessly through 92 minutes of running time much like its titular ruminants, fumbling to achieve genuine audience engagement.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Premieres
Production company: Red Crown Productions
Cast: David Duchovny, Vera Farmiga, Graham Phillips, Ty Burrell, Keri Russell, Justin Kirk, Nicholas Lobue, Anthony Anderson
Director: Christopher Neil
Screenwriter: Mark Jude Poirier
Producers: Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Shannon Lail
Executive producers: Daniel Crown, Riva Marker
Director of photography: Wyatt Troll
Production designer: Mark Duran
Costume designer: Kate Deblasio
Music: Woody Jackson, Jason Schwartzman
Editors: Jeremiah O’Driscoll, Kevin Tent, Craig McKay
No rating, 92 minutes