College life is hard. The combination between the awkwardness of age and the newly independent and virginal exposure to so many new perceptions, ideas and experiences (plus the vacuum of parental supervision) create a swath of poor choices and follow-the-herd-mentality. And Andrew Neel’s film, Goat based on a memoir by Brad Land, makes one believe college is utter hell. If only the film had more on its mind than rehashing the boring concept that frat houses are petri dishes for unchecked masculinity and torturous hazing.
The virginal character here about to descend in Dante’s collegiate inferno is Brad (Ben Schnetzer), the good looking but soft-spoken younger brother to more handsome and confident Brett (Nick Jonas). The dynamic between the two is quickly established as Brad quietly excuses himself from a roaring party while Brett continues to watch and cheer on two girls making out in an upstairs bedroom. Brad is even too embarrassed to pursue his muffled affection for Leah (Virginia Gardner) whose also at the party.
While walking to his car, Brad is talked into giving a ride for a shadowy figure outside the party, and the single passenger soon turns into two and Brad experiences a not-so-good-goodbye on the summer eve of his college experience.
Trying to put all that behind him, Brad enters the same university as Brett who coolly persuades him to try out his fraternity. There is genuine comradeship between the brothers, and as the hazing ritual continues over a week long period, Goat unflinchingly documents the series of abuse- both verbal and physical- that the group of pledges endures. Like a mafia family, the fraternity is especially insidious about how they recruit the pledges, exposing them to glorious parties and tight kinship before flipping the switch and becoming abusive, uncompromising gunny sergeants.
While the characters on both sides (both pledge and veteran frat boy) are mostly drawn in cliched outlines, the real tension that I think Goat hints at is the relationship between Brad and Brett. Knowing the recent trauma inflicted upon Brad, how long will older brother allow the abuse to go on? How long will Brad continue to simmer before he strikes back?
I say I think to all this because Goat straddles so many ideas, yet it never fully commits or comments on any of them. Recent documentaries such as Kirby Dick’s incendiary The Hunting Ground and countless ESPN “Outside the Lines” features have done a tremendous job of peeling back the carnivorous layers of abuse and entitlement that seem to pervade college campuses. Goat seems content enough to draw the line between frat house meatheads and pledges without giving either side real heart, emotions or drive, which is uniquely surprising since its written by indie auteur writer/director David Gordon Green (All the Pretty Girls, Pineapple Express) who normally imbues his projects with a sense of Southern trash poetry and striking teen angst. There’s neither of that here.
The most interesting aspect of the film lies in the cameo of James Franco. Rest assured, despite whatever the film’s marketing and trailer want one to believe, he’s in it for about 2 minutes, yet his role as Mitch is a fascinating anecdote. As a graduated thirty-something ex-member of the frat, he shows up to one of its parties in the hopes of talking the pledges into joining. Fresh off work in his mechanic hemmed shirt, he’s persuaded to stay and drink longer than he wants, alluding that he must get home to his wife and new baby. He ends up staying all night and passing out on the couch.
Cut from the same cloth as all the other aggressive, liquor-swilling guys in the frat, he’s the embodiment of 95% of their futures. Yet, for that one night, he’s willing to fall back into the faded and beer-stained glory of yesteryear because they empower him. I’d rather see a full length drama about this guy any day over the cadre of good-looking and empty physical specimens the film chooses instead. For a two minute cameo, that certainly doesn’t bode well for the other 94 minutes of film time.
Goat opens on Friday, September 23 at the Dallas Angelika.