No matter how intelligent or well-heeled a kid is coming up, he's just as likely to squander and be crushed by his potential as he is to make some use of it. Ellis (Graham Phillips), a silver spoon-fed high school student who breezes through his studies and is too smart and evolved to take any advice from grown-ups seriously, seems certain to head down a troubled path.
The protagonist of Goats, Ellis drifts through life finding little that engages him. He reacts to his oppressions and influences instead of seeking out his own interests and goals. His role models range from a brain-fried, sexaholic hippie (David Duchovny), a vacant, self-discovery-obsessed mom (Vera Farmiga) and an absentee, success-driven dad (Ty Burrell), whose idea of success is to sacrifice matters of the heart for prestige. Shoved off from his eccentric desert home to a prestigious New England prep school, Ellis is left alone in the rye with nary a catcher in sight.
The antidote to the typical coming-of-age movie, Goats shuffles into the muck of adolescent angst, aware that there are no easy solutions for finding a sense of self, letting go of lifelong resentments or establishing and sticking to a moral code. Mark Jude Poirier did an admirable job of adapting his novel to screen, although camerawork — no matter how well-designed, can't replace the author's uncanny ability to paint scenes or translate his sly, descriptive observations. With the film, Poirier is forced to boil his novel down to dialogue and plot points, and much is lost in the distillation.
Duchovny is maybe too good for this movie, commanding his scenes as a poolboy/drifter/rancher/drug trafficker with effortless glee. His stuff saves the movie while sort of ruining it, detracting from Ellis's journey. Duchovny's out-there antics serve as welcome comic relief apart from Ellis's oft-overserious drama — he tangles with a headstrong, clingy roomie, falls for a possible call girl and wrestles with his grudging admiration and disgust of his dad — that you miss Duchovny's Goat Man when he goes away, and wonder what he's up to. But like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings and Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, his actual antics are probably best left to the imagination. As a stark opposite to Duchovny, Phillips lacks a compelling command of what Ellis could have been. He's got the blank slate part right, but his character would have been more lovable if he were more precocious.
Keri Russell does well in the thankless role of Ellis's trophy mother-in-law, and Farmiga is a tasty flavor of nutso as his mom. Credit director Christopher Neil and his filmmaking team for wrapping a disjointed package in gorgeous trappings. Pretty, confused and thrilling to analyze and revisit, Goats is just like adolescence.
Starring Graham Phillips, David Duchovny, Keri Russell, Justin Kirk and Vera Farmiga. Written by Mark Jude Poirier, based on his novel. Directed by Christopher Neil. 94 minutes. Rated R.