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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Sundance Review: Goats

There’s a good deal to like in Goats, a coming-of-age tale adapted by Mark Jude Poirier off his own 2001, semi-autobiographical novel, and helmed by first-time feature director Christopher Neil (nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, cousin of Sophia Coppola). The film focuses on Ellis Whitman (Graham Phillips), a 14-year-old kid, wise and responsible beyond his years, who lives with Wendy (Vera Farmiga) his child-like, trust-fund mom in a posh, comfortable home in Tucson. Ellis’s dad, who his mom calls “Fucker Frank,” is long-gone and barely a presence in Ellis’s life; filling the gap left by his absence is Goat Man (David Duchovny, very funny here and almost unrecognizable in a desert-prophet full beard and long, wind-blown hair), a friend of his mom’s who’s lived in the pool house rent-free for as long as anyone can remember, taking care of her property, cleaning the pool, and raising goats and a spectacular greenhouse crop of pot.

As we meet him, Ellis is facing the need to break free of his flaky, emotionally needy mother. At 14, he has the emotional steadiness and wise-beyond-his-years maturity of a kid who’s grown up having to take on the adult role with a parent; Wendy has plenty of money, but can’t even remember to pay her bills, she’s always off seeking spiritual enlightenment or gratification, and she sees her son more as a security blanket for herself than a person with his own needs and desires. She has all the solipsism of a clingy two-year-old.

Ellis needs to break away from his needy mother, so he secretly applies to Gates Academy, the prestigious East Coast boarding school his dad attended. Wendy’s freaked out about her son moving so far away from her – however will she survive without him? – and even more upset that he might reconnect with the oft-demonized Fucker Frank (Ty Burrell) who, as it turns out, maybe isn’t such of a bad guy after all.

The film takes us through the first year of Ellis’s life at Gates, as he learns to distance himself from his mother’s neediness, find friends his own age, and reconnect with his dad. Storywise, the script works more in soft edges, and some editing to tighten it up and quicken the pace and flow would help it out quite a bit; right now, even at roughly 90 minutes, it feels a bit meandering at times. This isn’t Catcher in the Rye (thankfully) but it’s also not particularly what I’d call edgy in terms of its character development and structure. As far as coming-of-age tales go, the plot doesn’t give Ellis much in the way of challenges to meet, obstacles to overcome, or risks to take — which means it has to rely that much more on performance and editing to keep it clipping along in an engaging way.

The scenes between Goat Man and Ellis, and between Ellis and Frank, are by far the strongest in the film. Duchovny seems fully engaged in bringing to life this odd, enigmatic character, and whenever he’s on screen, he pulls everyone else up to a higher level. Justin Kirk as Bennett, Wendy’s new boyfriend, is priggishly entertaining, especially when he’s going head-to-head against Goat Man, who starts to feel threatened by Bennett’s presence in Wendy’s house and life. But again, the sense of challenge or risk, the dramatic tension that should come from Goat Man’s entire way of life being threatened, aren’t conveyed quite as strongly as they need to be. When Goat Man and Ellis take a desert trek to Mexico on a mission that challenges their friendship and puts both of them at risk, there’s never a sense of danger, a tension created by the editing that makes us feel the tingle of things about to happen, and the relative ease with which things are resolved feels just a little too safe.

I did enjoy much of this film, particularly Duchovny, but I also think there’s a better movie in there that needs to be found. Right now it feels a bit too literary, as if the script was honed a little too closely from the novel. There are ways in which you can see Neil making the nervous mistakes of a first-time feature director, particularly with the cohesiveness of story flow and the way the pieces fit together. He needs to be more confident, more secure about what he’s doing in the post process, because he clearly has talent for shooting a film. Goats is technically very proficient, filled with gorgeously composed shots and some absolutely stunning cinematography by Wyatt Troll. The shots in the desert are of a painterly beauty, the East Coast exteriors cool and serene. Mark Alan Duran’s production design is lovely as well, and the score (by Woody Jackson and Jason Schwartzman) is notably solid.

There is so much to like here within these frames, and so much obvious love and labor that Neil put into making this film, that the places where it doesn’t quite knit together are that much more frustrating than they would be if I’d just disliked it all the way around. It needs some re-editing to find a tighter, more consistently engaging story flow, one that better builds a sense of risks along the journey, and obstacles overcome by the end. I would think, based on the technical acumen Neil otherwise displays, that he has the coverage needed to go back and fix those issues and make what’s now a pretty good film into a pretty great, solidly entertaining one, and I hope this film finds a distributor who can see the very good film that’s hidden within these frames, because it would be a shame to waste the many solid things about it when what’s already there could be made better.

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One Response to “Sundance Review: Goats”

  1. Sundance Kid says:

    I was at the Sundance premiere of Goats and have read the many disappointing reviews of the film. This is by leaps and bounds the most balanced and insightful review of the film I have seen to date. It faithfully touches on the strengths and weaknesses of the film.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon