January 27, 2012


More articles by »
Written by: Mitch Salem
Tags: , , , , , ,


Virtually every screening at Sundance is followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker, and while these sessions can be informative and charming (although 3 questions that need never be asked again are How long did you shoot?  What was the budget? and How much was improvised?), they can also be quite sad.  Watching them, you realize that even bad independent movies require an enormous amount of effort, usually with little compensation, over many years, and that no one sets out to invest that kind of sacrifice into a movie that’s not worth watching.


GOATS is a very bad movie, but not because anyone who made it was lazy or horribly untalented.  It’s just a misconceived, uninvolving story that falls into all too many indie-movie traps.  Based on a novel by Mark Jude Poirier (who also wrote the script) and directed by first-timer Christopher Neil, it’s a compendium of the genre’s cliches, from sensitive teen Ellis (Graham Phillips, best known as Juliana Margulies’ son on The Good Wife) going away to his first year at school, to the wackily eccentric New-Agey mother (Vera Farmiga) and pot-growing surrogate father (David Duchovny) he leaves behind, to his difficult relationships with both mom and estranged biological dad (Ty Burrell).

If you’re going to embrace this kind of hackneyed material, you’d better bring something new to the party, but Goats just loads on self-conscious idiosyncracy.  Duchovny’s character, apart from being a pot grower, is called Goat Man because he raises and is constantly accompanied by goats, which he takes on spiritual survivalist journeys.  Farmiga is the kind of only-in-the-movies trust fund mother who teems with extravagant narcissism (she seems to be auditioning to play Auntie Mame), and as her boyfriend, Justin Kirk does a snide variation of his role on Weeds.

None of this works.  Naturally the point is for Ellis to Grow Up and learn Life Lessons from his time at school (the movie’s title, apart from referring to Duchovny’s compansions, presumably is meant to suggest Gates, the name of the prep school) and his evolving relationships with his parents and Goat Man, but since none of the characters are believable or interesting, it all feels forced.  (There’s also a jarringly ugly tone to the semi-friendship that forms between Ellis and a girl who works at the school that the movie never acknowledges.)

Even though Neil has been an acting coach (he’s also a member of the Coppola family) and has gathered a fine cast, he lets each of the actors go in their own direction, so there’s no sense of an ensemble or unifying tone.  Goats marks one of the very rare times you’ll ever see Vera Farmiga give a bad performance, and the only ones who really fare well are Duchovny, whose detached, ironic humor at least makes Goat Man interesting, and Burrell, who gives an admirably controlled performance as Ellis’s dad.

Goats is technically quite accomplished, convincingly set in several areas of the country despite limited budget and locations, and handsomely shot by Wyatt Troll.  It moves along and has a few mild laughs.  the film was made with what seems to be true affection for its material, but that affection was misplaced.  It’s an overfamiliar, unenlightening and ultimately tiresome piece of work that, sadly, took years out of people’s lives. That’s the less pleasant side of Sundance.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."