Review: Goat (Sundance)
PLOT: A young man (Ben Schnetzer) recovering from a brutal assault becomes a pledge at his brother’s (Nick Jonas) fraternity.
REVIEW: College fraternities have been all over the news lately, with none of the mentions being positive at all. Accusations of campus rapes, drugs, and hazing have replaced the old, fun-loving depictions of frat-houses that dominated pop culture in movies like ANIMAL HOUSE, and now they seem to be increasingly seen as a kind of breeding ground for young sociopaths. Is that painting a wide group with one brush? You bet it is, but GOAT is a surprisingly balanced depiction of that lifestyle, even if after watching this parents will likely panic if they hear their kids are pledging a frat or sorority.
Based on the memoir by Brad Land, GOAT has been making the Hollywood rounds for awhile now, with David Gordon Green having long been attached to direct. He’s still on-board as a producer and co-writer, but the reins have been passed to director Andrew Land, who makes a big stab at the mainstream after specializing in documentaries like DARKON and NEW WORLD ORDER. This background actually makes him ideal as he’s able to present a realistic look at the frat “bro-culture” although here the emphasis isn’t on the plague of date rapes, but rather the sadism with which they treat their own members.
Thankfully, the frat boys aren’t simply depicted as creeps, with the idea being that the bad side of frat life isn’t neccesarily due to the individual boys. Rather, it’s shown as combination a few things, including the centuries-old tradition (with fraternities a kind of remnant of aristocracy) and the fact that these young men are on their own for the first time in their lives, with no one to curb their behavior.
Certainly, the hazing is grotesque, with the boys forced to drink potentially deadly amounts of alcohol, when not being peed on or sexually victimized, with homoerotic forced fellatio of fruit being an interesting contrast to the way the boys constantly tease each other with the word f*g. The title, GOAT, refers to the fact that the boys are told that they’ll have to sodomize and kill the frat’s mascot before being allowed to join, a threat that - even if hollow - speaks to their immaturity.
The acting is excellent, with Ben Schnetzer breaking out in a big way as the affable lead. The whole question of what it takes to be a man in the 21st century is addressed through the way his character tries to reconcile his victimization at the hands of two men by joining this hyper-macho group, and he’s a believably conflicted hero.
The biggest surprise here is probably Nick Jonas, who the first scene shows is far from his purity ring pop star days, with him doing lines of coke and having sex with sorority sisters. While initially presented as a bit of an alpha dope, he winds up being the most interesting character, as his own feelings of powerlessness at having not protected his little brother from either his muggers or the frat boys paying interesting dividends. He shows a lot of promise (I’ve also heard he’s excellent on The Kingdom).
GOAT is apparently being chased by A24 and it would likely make for an ideal acquisition for the hip indie company, as it’s something that should appeal to the cool young audience that made their EX MACHINA such a hit. With an amusing cameo by James Franco (also a producer) as an over-the-hill former pledge and the timely subject matter, this may well make for an interesting conversation piece. It’s entertaining and thoughtful and another solid showing for at what’s shaping up to be a very good edition of the Sundance Film Festival.