The “parentalized child”: a psychological term used for children that are required to parent their own parents and in turn never really have a childhood of their own. I know them well, for I was one myself. So is the subject of the new film “Goats,” a film based on the book with the same name by Mark Poirier.
In “Goats” Ellis (Graham Phillips) is young man living in the desert southwest of Tucson, Arizona. He lives a somewhat financially privilege life with his mother Wendy (Vera Farmiga) and a goat herder named Goat Man (David Duchovny). Although Wendy is financially secure, funded by a trust fund, the rest of her life is a mess. It is Ellis she relies on to be the responsible one. Goat Man lives in the guest house and lives rent free in exchange for his labor around the home. It is Goat Man that takes on Ellis on treks, teaches him about life and yes, they smoke quite a bit of weed throughout their journeys.
Ellis is leaving soon to attend the same prep school his father did, in the east coast. His father has been absent for years and is only referred to by Ellis’ mother using derogatory terms. Wendy seems tortured at the fact that Ellis is leaving, but once situated in boarding school he hears nothing from his mother. And Goat Man’s only attempt to make communication with Ellis is when the mail man refuses to mail a letter containing marijuana.
As the holidays approach, Ellis receives a plane ticket from his father and an invitation to spend Thanksgiving. Ellis feels even more betrayed when he finally meets with his father and learns that his father has remarried and they are having another child. The holiday does not go well, even though his new step-mother Judy (Keri Russell) is very accepting of Ellis and tries earnestly to mend the damaged relationship between father and son.
At Christmas, Ellis returns to Tucson and meets a Wendy’s pathetic, looser of a boyfriend Bennett (Justin Kirk). Ellis travels on a longer trek to Mexico with Goat Man and his goats and on the return trip, Goat Man is lost after trying to chase after one of his goats. When Ellis returns home, no one seems too concerned about Goat Man’s whereabouts or health. But it concerns Ellis quite a bit, and what is even more concerning is everyone’s lack of concern.
After returning to school, Frank visits Ellis at the prep school and Frank shows Ellis how life was when he had attended the school. He sees his pictures of his father when he was young and Frank shows Ellis where his dorm room was on the campus. In this moment Frank becomes a real person to Ellis, and they learn that they have more to share with each other.
And at the end of Ellis’ first year in prep school, Ellis’ life seems to steady.
“Goats” reminds me of the hippies I grew up with when I was a kid. They were laid back and way too relaxed for my taste. This is the directorial debut of Christopher Neil (a nephew of Francis F. Coppola), and I say it is good job for a first feature film, but not one that will be winning Neil or any other crew or cast mates any awards in a few months.
The film is beautifully photographed, but some of the little things aren’t paid attention to, for example: the boarding school scenes take place during a full school year, yet it is obvious that during the winter months one thing is missing – snow!
But the greatest thing missing from this film was an ending that provides any kind of epiphany for Ellis. Life just continues on, and I wanted more. I felt I invested almost two hours of my time and I wanted some kind of cinematic reward for watching this film. It left me just a little bewildered and I felt that Poirier’s script lacked a cohesive story line.
The performances in the film were good for the most part. Graham Phillips as Ellis shows great promise in his first starring role. Farmiga, Kirk and Duchovny were very capable in their roles. I took more interest in the performances Ty Burrell and Keri Russell. Russell shares little screen time with Ellis, but her loving attention is palpable. Burrell’s character shows the most depth in the film and his able to break free from the caricature that was established by Wendy.
I like parts of this film, but as a whole is more disappointing than pleasing. I can see a good future for Christopher Neil in the field of filmmaking, but he has a lot of growing to do. Neil optioned the book rights for this film 10 years ago, and perhaps he was so enamored by the story that he wasn’t more cautious with the script. Growing up around Coppola should have taught Neil that the audience will be expecting a bang for their buck – for Neil’s uncle excelled at that!
“Goats” is rated R for drug content including teen drug and alcohol use, language, sexuality and nudity and has a run-time of 1 hour and 34 minutes.
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Whatever your movie choice this week, please remember your movie theater etiquette: silence your cell phones & no texting, please don’t talk during the film and remove your children if they become a distraction to other audience members. Don’t forget that laughing, crying and cheering are always approved behavior and even encouraged.
-Kay Shackleton is a film historian with special focus on Silent Films, see her work on SilentHollywood.com