Quietly screening in the market the same day Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” kicked off the Cannes fest proper, “Goat Island” offers an alternate, more realistic tale of two summer-camp runaways roughing it in the woods alone. Based on Brock Cole’s controversial young-adult novel “The Goats,” this low-budget passion project from “Eagle Eye” director D.J. Caruso offers a practical solution to the issue of adolescent bullying, as its two young protags respond to a case of vicious hazing not with despair or retaliation, but through teamwork and character-building. Marketing challenges aside, this quality coming-of-ager deserves a proper release.
A throwback to the no-nonsense kidpics common circa 1985, when the adventure is set, “Goat Island” begins with the opposite of a meet-cute, as traumatized 13-year-olds Howie (Chandler Canterbury) and Grace (Annalise Basso) are both tricked by their fellow campers. But the humiliation, handled as tastefully as possible onscreen, goes well beyond abandonment. Every year, the cool kids pick two unlucky “goats,” whom they strip and strand for the night in the middle of Camp Tall Pine’s intimidating lake.
The script chillingly depicts a certain institutional acceptance of the tradition, suggesting that counselors and returning campers indulge the bullying as a sort of trial by fire for those least suited to cope with being teased and ostracized. No matter how long the practice has been going on, however, no goats have ever responded the way Howie and Grace do.
Instead of remaining victims, the two kids swim back to shore, where they ditch the camp and set off on a journey of their own around upstate New York (made lovelier courtesy of a picturesque Georgia shoot). At first, the duo seem weak and unlikable, which gives auds a taste of why they might have been chosen for the prank, but as their confidence in themselves grows, they begin to evince qualities no one else has seen in them, effectively conveyed by the young actors. For Howie, the transition comes when stealing two fresh sets of clothes from a rude concession-stand operator; for Grace, conning her way into a free hotel room reveals her fully out of her shell.
Essentially, what the experience teaches them is self-reliance — the skill that, when coupled with empathy, marks the passage into maturity. Watching Howie handle a confrontation with a bully at a neighboring camp in an unexpectedly sensitive way proves how far they’ve come in a short amount of time. Episodic by nature, the teens’ three-day excursion forces them to bend all sorts of rules, including lying to Grace’s mother (Radha Mitchell) and escaping a sleazy deputy sheriff (Val Kilmer, looking even more desperate than he did in Caruso’s “The Salton Sea”).
If “Goat Island” sounds harsh or potentially even unsuitable for kids (the novel ranked No. 30 on the American Library Assn.’s most frequently challenged books of the past decade), a constructive way to think of Cole’s touchy allegory is as a reversal on “The Lord of the Flies.” Possibly retitled to avoid confusion with Brad Land’s better-known frat-hazing memoir, “Goat Island” pays the thugs little mind, focusing instead on how such a challenging situation can actually bring out the best in those who are being tested most.
Reportedly shot in 18 days on a fraction of Caruso’s usual budget, the film nimbly works around its limitations, apart from another derivative-sounding score from composer Brian Tyler and the occasionally clunky child-actor moment. Though unconvincing early on, Basso blossoms as the story unfolds, while the more consistent Canterbury enhances his role with small touches. In both cases, oversized and intentionally dorky eyeglasses make the kids appear more awkward than they are, while pro-quality sound work makes the pic seem less awkward than it is.