Some movies are so amiable, seemingly grinning at the audience like a political candidate at a campaign event, that you can almost forget the fact that they stand for something, maybe even something you find unappealing, or objectionable. First-time director Christopher Neil's "Goats," adapted by Mark Poirier from his novel, fits into this slippery category. Essentially a coming-of-age story for the "one percent," the movie imparts its patrician life lessons with a pleasantness that almost completely masks its hauteur.
Graham Phillips, from the popular CBS show "The Good Wife," plays Ellis, the movie's wide-eyed, young hero, who might be on the verge of greatness, if he can only recognize the inferiority of everyone else around him. What primarily obscures Ellis's self-satisfaction is the affection he feels for his obnoxiously faddish mother, Wendy (Vera Farmiga), a mentally unbalanced woman completely lacking in common sense and, thus, very fortunate to have a bottomless trust fund.
Ellis also has a surrogate father of sorts, Goat Man (David Duchovny), a wild-and-woolly lump of hair and flesh perfectly content to live off Wendy's largesse. The putatively carefree Goat Man spends his wasted days smoking pot, dispensing facile advice, humping the slutty neighbor girl and, in case you were wondering about the nickname, tending to a herd of goats that likely smell a tad better than he does. What Wendy derives from the relationship is unclear, since she does not appear to be sexually involved with Goat Man; she barely talks to him. Perhaps it is just a matter of insanity needing company.
Being a typical adolescent, Ellis is not a prude and, so, enjoys sharing bizarre strains of cannabis with Goat Man and joining him on his mystical treks through the Tucson desert. But as the smartest and most responsible member of his household, the one who pays the bills and keeps Wendy out of too much trouble, Ellis is also the most susceptible to the pull of adulthood. And to his mother’s great chagrin, this sense of needed growth causes him to enroll in the fictional Gates Academy, the same haughty, no girls allowed, East Coast prep school that educated his biological father. The forever heedless Wendy responds to Ellis’ supposed betrayal by finding a new mate (Justin Kirk), a moronic cad who is even more parasitic than Goat Man.
Once its quirky set-up is finished, the movie comfortably settles into the heartwarming conventions of its genre. Upon his arrival at Gates Academy, Ellis becomes the favorite pupil of every inspiring teacher he meets, makes a best friend, starts to develop an appreciation of the wider world, and furtively stares at a pretty girl. He also reconnects with his rigid and remorseful dad, Frank (Ty Burrell), who, conveniently, lives within driving distance of Gates Academy, in a placid home with his pregnant, and lucid, second wife, Judy (Keri Russell). They are ready to give Ellis the normalcy he instinctually craves.
As it bounces between Arizona and the hallowed halls of the junior elite, "Goats" never tries to exceed expectations, which is a forgivable flaw. Not every movie needs to astound its audience or aspire to the "Sight & Sound" list. But in tracing its familiar trajectory, earning a few smiles along the way, "Goats" eventually reveals a surprisingly disdainful side, mostly through its glancing and condescending treatment of the townies who surround and staff Gates Academy’s pristine campus. One of them, Minnie (Dakota Johnson), a smart and attractive peon without the financial benefit of a wealthy, whacked-out mom, works in the school’s cafeteria and captures Ellis’s hormonal attention.
Despite Neil and Poirier having primed us for a bout of sugary puppy love, Ellis and Minnie’s relationship ends, before it ever really begins, on an unexpectedly sour note. Apparently Wendy’s example has taught her son to be wary of free-spirited women, though one suspects it is the grime under Minnie’s nails that is the real turn-off for the now upwardly mobile Ellis.
To further understand the movie’s class sentiments, contrast its treatment of Minnie to that of Ellis’ roommate at Gates Academy, Barney (Nicholas Lobue), a sloppy, dunderheaded alcoholic with emotional problems to spare. While Minnie is assuredly doomed, Barney becomes the subject of a feel-good montage in which the situationally kind Ellis saves him from expulsion. Hopefully, Barney remembers to reward Ellis with a cabinet position some day.
Strangely, "Goats," which is memorable only for its smugness, does not lack in acting talent. Besides the always solid Fermiga and her co-star Duchovny, obviously enjoying the chance to play against his clean-cut, smarty-pants persona, the movie also includes Anthony Anderson, as an unorthodox running coach, and Alan Ruck, as Gates Academy’s sensitive headmaster. During their brief screen time, both actors add needed energy to a movie that occasionally suffers from pacing that is as laid-back as Goat Man.
Another slumming actor, Minnie Driver, provides a final jolt of recognition, showing up near the end of the movie to give an oddly wordless performance as Wendy’s hippie-dippie best friend. If nothing else, "Goats" certainly proves that Neil has a bunch of impressive filmmaking connections, which he should try to put to better use in his second feature.