Sundance 2016: Ben Schnetzer delivers a breakout performance in Andrew Neel’s adaptation of Brad Land’s memoir
Masculinity comes at a considerable cost in Andrew Neel’s “Goat,” a terrifying portrait of college hazing that serves as a searing indictment of the fraternity system and its booze-soaked rituals.
Based on true events chronicled in Brad Land’s memoir, “Goat” stars Ben Schnetzer (“Pride”) and chronicles his harrowing experience pledging his older brother’s fraternity following a violent assault that left him questioning his own manhood after he didn’t fight back.
Determined to prove himself as a man among men, Brad puts up with all kinds of crap — literally and figuratively — while his older brother (Nick Jonas) feels increasingly guilty about subjecting Brad to another painful ordeal, regardless of the light at the end of a semester-long tunnel.
“Goat” entered Sundance with no shortage of early buzz, boasting James Franco as a producer (he also appears in a surprise cameo) and David Gordon Green as a co-writer. Franco and his Rabbit Bandini producing partner Vince Jolivette have been developing the project for the past 10 years, and they were joined by the Killer Films duo of David Hinojosa and Christine Vachon, whose “Boys Don’t Cry” featured similar scenes of unthinkable violence.
From its opening slow-motion shot of shirtless young men screaming, Neel demonstrates a flair for capturing the recklessness of youth, and his staging of the initial attack on Brad by two creepy townies is the stuff Uber driver nightmares are made of.
The cast of “Goat” is uniformly excellent from top to bottom. Schnetzer does the heavy lifting as the younger Land brother, and it’s a breakout role that serves as a strong lead-in to his upcoming turns in “Warcraft” and “Snowden” this summer.
Meanwhile, Jonas leaves his boy-band roots behind with this sympathetic turn as Brad’s conflicted older sibling, who wants to help his baby bro recover but only ends up making things worse by introducing him to the oh-so-seductive frat life.
Relative newcomers Gus Halper and Jake Picking are rock-solid as two of the frat’s leaders, while Danny Flaherty (“Skins”) also makes a strong impression as Brad’s roommate, who seems to be the runt of the litter among the pledges.
At the post-screening Q&A, Neel said he hoped that “Goat” would start a conversation about modern masculinity. “It hasn’t been discussed very much,” said the director, who added that “most of women’s problems are because of men’s problems,” and men tend to suffer in silence rather than discuss their true feelings.
While that remark drew some applause from women in the audience, that issue isn’t really addressed in “Goat,” as women are mere window dressing in the film. Neel wisely keeps his focus on the fraternity, since the protagonist is devoted to his future brothers and there’s no romance at stake.
Interestingly, none of the young actors present at the Q&A have been in a frat, while Flaherty said that his more muscular co-stars would apologize to him in between takes and make sure he was OK. After all, Picking said that Neel didn’t give him much instruction during the intense hazing scenes, and he was allowed to improvise and go for broke as the sadistic pledge master.
Neel told the crowd that Land was on set for several days but wasn’t terribly involved in the making of the film, as he’s still coming to grips with the events depicted in the film.
Like last year’s Sundance entry “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” “Goat” is very dark film about young people, the danger of obedience and the mental toll that physical violence can take. As such, its commercial prospects are inherently limited, especially since it features no recognizable stars other than Jonas. That said, a smart distributor could make the film a must-see on college campuses, and it will likely have fans at fraternities across the country.
All of the top buyers were present at the film’s first screening, including Tom Ortenberg of Open Road Films and Howard Cohen of Roadside Attractions. Also in attendance were members of the U.S. Dramatic Jury, which this year includes Lena Dunham, Jon Hamm and Black List founder Franklin Leonard.