Goat (2016) is one of those films that, like its main character, Brad (Ben Schnetzer, who’s fantastic in a vulnerable performance), doesn’t quite know what it wants or how to obtain it; it is, in all respects, merely an observation of destructive young male behavior rather than an indictment of it. Unfortunately, its potential for greatness is blunted by an overly-cautious attempt.
It was clear from the film and a post-film Q-&-A that the director, Andrew Neel, is eager to ignite the social conversation; the problem is, though he has intense personal experience with the issue, he is reluctant to offer up any ideas on how to address what he calls an “epidemic of masculinity” not only in America’s frat houses, but in society as a whole.
We witness 19-year-old Brad – a classic “nice guy” – being assaulted and robbed by two other young men after a night of drinking and partying. Afterwards, his masculinity is questioned, even if just jokingly, by close friends, and he elects to over-compensate for this internalized feeling of “being a pussy” by pledging to join Phi Sigma Mu, his brother, Brett’s (Nick Jonas), fraternity at a nearby university.
But when “Hell Week” arrives with a bang in the middle of the night, he willingly participates with the other “goats” in the extreme hazing (which includes chugging un-Godly amounts of beer; being locked in a cage and urinated on; being hog-tied as a group, covered in mud, and left to sleep naked in the cold night; and being forced, while blindfolded, to “sexually please” other members of the frat by way of their cruel phallic approximations) in a bid to obtain what they believe to be society’s equivalent of a “man card.”
Throughout the grueling, abusive process, Brad struggles to keep his post-traumatic stress disorder regarding his earlier assault at bay but, as he soon learns, he can only do that for so long. With pressure from his brother (who admits in a moment of truth, “You don’t belong here!”) and a fierce need for external approval, Brad goes against his kind, peaceful nature on a wandering, torturous journey of self-discovery and healing.
There is much to be respected here, especially a tender, vulnerable ending that exemplifies the love between brothers and the power to be gained from confronting the true source of what’s causing the pain. Rather than reaching for a message more universal, however, the filmmakers opt for one that seems too insular, too contained within the frat-house culture. It doesn’t translate into the real world as well as they think it does.
Simply put, too much time is spent shocking the audience with the abuse itself rather than showcasing the shattering effects it can have on those who are on the receiving end of it – even if they are willing participants. It would have been much more welcome, interesting, and effective to focus more screen and story time on Brad’s anxiety, his reluctance to confront his pain, his self-definition of masculinity.
Though imperfect and falling short of its goals, the film is a worthy effort and contribution that ought to be applauded, viewed, and discussed, especially among fathers and their sons.
Goat is screening at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in the competitive U.S. Dramatic Competition category and has yet to be acquired for U.S. distribution.
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Image Source: Sundance Institute