Despite the ever-escalating cost of private education, there are still some who feel that there's no character more empathetic than a boarding school lad. "Goats," directed by Christopher Neil and written by Mark Poirier (based on his own novel) is a coming-of-age for Graham Phillips' Ellis. You might be forgiven for not realizing it was a coming-of-age tale, however, because for 95% of the movie, the whole schtick is that this 14-year-old kid is far more wise and mature than all the adults around him.
We first meet him at his mother's Rancho Relaxo-like estate in Arizona. Here, Mom (Vera Fermiga), called Wendy, spends her time uncoiling her kundalini, letting young Ellis take care of the mundane tasks like making sure the electricity bill is paid. His father figure is a bearded stoner called Goat Man (David Duchovny) who takes Ellis out for walkabouts and pontificates with a philosophy that weaves a unique tapestry of idealism (do your own thing, man) and pragmatic (never pass up a free lunch, man.)
Goat Man's free lunch comes as being Wendy's gardener (with some of the plants of much interest to glaucoma victims) but trouble comes when she meets a jerky new boyfriend (Justin Kirk). Wendy's in an emotionally tender spot because of Ellis' imminent departure for the East Coast prep school. Less because she'll miss him, but because she needs him to take care of her and, though she won't admit it, she sees his attendance at the "Gates Academy" as a victory for her ex-husband.
He's named Frank, but everyone around Wendy only knows him as "F**ker Frank," and the mere mention of his name can send her flying into a very un-Arizona-mellow rage. Still, Ellis soon leaves, finding himself wearing blazers and, due to his distance from Goat Man, unable to blaze. (I'm not sure if it was intentional, but "Goats" makes a strong argument that pot actually is addictive.)
On the East Coast, Ellis meets up with F**ker Frank who, while not quite worthy of his rather explicit moniker, isn't exactly warm and fuzzy. His new, pregnant wife (Keri Russell) tries to keep things smooth, but there's a childhood of father-son tension that needs to get worked out.
They bond a bit over Ellis’ kooky mother, however, and, when he returns home for a winter break, it is clear that either the new boyfriend or Goat Man has to go. A trip Ellis takes with Goat Man to Mexico is fraught with peril, but not real peril, because this is a movie about a precocious genius opining via voiceover and none of the characters are real.
I genuinely like hippies and searchers and people who generally do their own thing, man. I also hold no contempt for rich people. Their problems are far more glamorous than my own (and if you ever hang around them in real life, they sometimes take you out to expensive restaurants.) Nevertheless, I found almost none of the conflicts in "Goats" to be compelling.
The main issue is that it's awfully hard to figure out what the main conflict is. Oh, there are a lot of little loose ends (like a townie girlfriend, or joining the track team), and, yes, that might be enough to keep you really enthralled in real life, but this is fiction, and you can demand more.
"Goats" has occasional charms, most of them coming from Duchovny. He's unrecognizable behind his beard, and he goes to great lengths to play the wandering spirit in unconventional ways. He's not The Dude, he's not Peter Fonda's Captain America. If he's reminiscent of anyone, it's John Corbett's disc jockey character from "Northern Exposure," a character I didn't realize how much I missed.
According to the IMDb, "Goats" has twenty-five different people listed as either co-/executive or associate producers. To my thinking, this means that lots of people think it might be smart to be in the Christopher Neil business, but no one had that much confidence in this particular film. Neil, whose prior credits include being a "rehearsal coach," is part of the extended Coppola family... but on Francis' wife's side. Based on "Goats," all evidence points to the talent gene sticking with Jason Schwartzman, Sofia and Roman.