2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Nick Jonas never pledged a fraternity. Instead of going to college, he played sold-out concerts to screaming girls. But he is the baby of the Jonas Brothers. There is no way he grew up without being hazed.
That’s why his engaging performance in Goat, which focuses on the bond between fraternity brothers vs. blood brothers, adds a level of intrigue in an otherwise standard-issue indie drama. It premiered Friday, January 22, at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
The “Jealous” singer — now, of course, a seriously strapping 23-year-old — is a natural fit as Brett, a popular member of the Phi Sigma Mu fraternity. (This is not to be confused with Jonas’ fraternity in Scream Queens.) Brett isn’t the stereotypical obnoxious party-lovin’, keg-drinkin’ frat dude, though. He prefers to stand back and do the observing. And, boy, does he show the love for his sweet, slightly younger brother, Brad (Ben Schnetzer). When Brad is randomly attacked within an inch of his life by two guys in hoodies one night after a party, Brett is left feeling guilty and angry because he wasn’t around to help him.
He can’t find the attackers. But he can encourage Brad to go back to school and rush his fraternity, which happens to be the most sought-after house at the school. When you wear those letters on campus, your fellow students look at you with newfound respect and awe. Brad wants in.
That concludes the uniquely sensitive portion of the narrative. (Really, it’s rare to see two teen alpha-male siblings be so supportive of each other.) What follows is an extended cut of Guys Gone Wild.
In the cutthroat Greek world, you’re not considered a real Brother until you survive the pledging rituals (which culminates in “Hell Week”). Forget that hazing is illegal; all the guys must endure the physical and emotional pain simply because this is how it’s been done for years. Brett explains to Brad that this is just how members “weed out the weak.” No big deal. What he doesn’t say: It’s the only surefire way to prove your masculinity.
So the pledges, dubbed “Goats,” willingly endure it all. They guzzle beer by the gallon, punch each other till they bleed, put their hands in a toilet while blindfolded, get duct-taped, mud-wrestle, etc. When Brad’s roommate in the dorm pukes during one “activity” (big no-no), he’s locked in a cage and sits on all fours as the older members piss on him. He still comes back for more.
A real goat is featured prominently in the pledging process too. You don’t want to know more.
None of these scenes of brutality unsettle as deeply as the one in which Brad is attacked. After all, even if you’ve never set foot in a dingy fraternity house, you’re well-acquainted with this twisted rite of passage. Brothers torturing brothers has already been covered in everything from Old School to The Social Network and Revenge of the Nerds to Animal House. With every slap in the face, there’s a numbing so-what element attached to it. (An exasperated Brett shouts more than once that none of this “matters.” Exactly!) The film’s one fresh angle — the relationship between Brad and Brett — is relegated to the B-side during the debauchery.
Strip away all the exploitation and there’s a moving, weirdly amusing thought-provoker in here. In the most effective scene, a former BMOC (James Franco, also a coproducer) shows up and proves that you can check out of Phi Sig anytime you like, but you can never leave. And, at times, Brett’s stony silence during the hazing rituals speaks volumes. But Goat never finds its focus, especially when addressing the central question: Why would Brad submit to his fraternity brothers’ punishment while still grappling with his terrifying near-death experience?
Rowdiness is fine. Steadiness is better.