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Sundance Film Festival Review: Goats

By Sommerly Simser

A reoccurring theme in the films at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival was the desire and necessity of human connection. Goats, one of this year's selected feature-length films explores this theme through 15-year-old Ellis' struggle to balance the role of an adult and parent versus the role of a teenager. Directed by Christopher Neil, Goats is based on the book of the same title by Mark Poirier, who also wrote the screenplay.

Ellis Whitman (Graham Phillips) lives with his New Age mother Wendy (Vera Farmiga) in Arizona. Also living with them is Ellis’ goat-trekking, marijuana-smoking mentor Goatman (David Duchovny). Unbeknownst to Ellis’ mother, he has applied and been accepted into the same east coast prep school attended by his estranged father (Ty Burrell). Wendy is unable to cope with initial shock that her son will be leaving her to follow in the footsteps of his father, and fears this will disrupt the cosmic harmony in their relationship. 

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Ellis struggles to adapt at school as a freshman. At home with Wendy and Goatman, he was the authority and parent figure. This role reversal lands him in a lot of trouble after he is caught smoking pot, drinking and getting into a fistfight with his roommate. Ellis longs for support and communication from Goatman and his mother, but never receives any. Goatman struggles to find a purpose with his life, while Ellis’ mother has taken on a new boyfriend, one she can mother in her son’s absence. However, this provides Ellis’ father with the opportunity to step in and make right what was lost so long ago, a father-son relationship.

Goats explores the struggle of a child assuming the parental role in a one-parent household, confronting the viewer with broken and misunderstood relationships, acceptance of oneself and one’s family, and what it means to grow up. Wendy is searching for something to give her peace and understanding of herself and the world. Goatman is constantly leading his goats on treks in search of more substantial meaning to his life. Ellis is reaching out for parental guidance, reassurance, and love.

Like so many today, we are always searching for something to fulfill us and give us a purpose, hope and meaning. We are innately designed with the desire for a relationship with God, but often we try to fulfill that need and desire by our connection with family, friends, and significant others. We place them above God and, once again, it is like we have been locked out of Eden, seeking to find ourselves and to connect through spiritual practices, sexual relationships, social media, technology, video games, or media. Goats presents the audience with the question: How do you connect with your family and your peers when the relationships have been damaged? For Christians, the film acts as a cautionary tale. Losing sight of pursuing a connection and relationship with God, could result in our lives being just as messy and un-fulfilling as are the lives of the characters in Goats.

The cast presents the subtle humor and the deep touching moments eloquently. This film is a must see for anyone that enjoys a coming of age story, that throws in some awkwardly funny moments with goats, the struggle to accept your bizarre family the way they are, and surviving your first crush. Goats is by no means a “Christian flick,” but it provides an introspective look at what Christians and non-Christians alike struggle with, the need for un-wavering love, acceptance, and connection.

Sommerly Simser works for the ReelDreams Film Competition in Virginia Beach, VA and is currently pursuing an MFA in Producing for Cinema & Television at Regent University.

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