Getting older is something that tends to sneak up on people. Though the pages of the calendar fall away, they’re still carrying around the same brain they’ve always had. They’ve doubtless grown from their experiences, but their essence, if you will, is ageless. And yet, they are expected to adhere to the paradigm of certain age benchmarks, even if they feel nowhere near ready to be there in their mind.
At 18, they must move out of their childhood home and begin life as an adult. At 30, they should be well on their way to settling down and starting a family. At 40, they are “over the hill” so they may as well start practicing their Viagra jokes and listening to soft rock. At 65, they’d best be ready to quit their job and take up bingo. There’s an often-used phrase associated with stories about people who aren’t adhering to societal standards of what they should be like at their age: “Coming of Age.”
If you think about it, it’s kind of an insulting term because it implies that you need to change your life in order to become what people expect of you. The goats in “Old Goats” are three men who are surprised to find that they have become part of a senior subculture. Taylor Guterson’s debut film is a unique depiction of the how these men come to terms with their elderly identities.
“Old Goats” follows Dave, Bob and Britt, three Seattle-area men in the twilight of their years. Dave, our sometime narrator, is fresh from forced retirement and still feeling the sting. He keeps himself busy with activities and relishes the time he spends with his friends, as it keeps his mind off his somewhat tense marriage and lack of purpose. Bob, an impulsive opportunist, plunges himself into writing his memoirs and, as he reflects on his past, starts to wonder if he was actually a dick in his youth. Britt lives in squalor on a boat that’s not really meant to be a house and isn’t really used as a boat. He’s lived this way for thirty years, and when the time comes for him to act on his long-touted maiden voyage to Hawaii, he chickens out.
All of these men still have something to learn about themselves. They each want to turn their retirement into a new beginning, but, ironically, fears of wasting their time keep them from acting on their grand plans. Dave and his wife had, at one time, planned to split their retirement years between Seattle and Tahoe, but Dave is now dragging his feet, not feeling ready to leave his friends and his familiar environment and relegate himself to bona fide retired life. Britt has been in a state of perpetual bachelorhood for his entire adult life, but it’s not the glamorous, Bruce Wayne sort. Instead, he’s practically a hobo, eating terrible packaged food and reading by lamplight in his moldy old boat, removed from any sort of technology, including a phone. After Britt bails on his trip, Dave and Bob make it their mission to reinvigorate Britt and introduce him to modern life. In the interest of meeting a lady, Britt begrudgingly agrees to get a cell phone and a computer. But he’s terrified of human interaction and is quick to retreat to his floating turtle shell whenever something goes wrong.
Bob is the only one who doesn’t dwell on his failures, continuing to live life to the fullest. He’s constantly throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. He’s not worried about the future as much as he is about his past. He knows it’s too late to do anything about it, but he still hopes that his presence on Earth has been a positive experience for everyone with whom he interacted.
The most refreshing thing about “Old Goats” is that it treats old people like people. They aren’t magical sages, imparting their wisdom on the young. They aren’t delightfully irreverent, busting a rhyme at a wedding reception and matter-of-factly spewing vulgarities to the shock of their juniors. They are real goddamned men with desires both recreational and romantic. They know they’re old because their environment won’t let them forget it. But they are still the same people they always were.
They are what everyone eventually becomes: older versions of themselves. The only difference is that their every move is tainted by the idea that their days are numbered. Being fulfilled has become a lot more important. Now is the time to write that memoir or go on that blind date. Now is the time to get in a round of golf and put off going to Tahoe with your wife to hang out with your dear friends whom you may never see again.
The film does meander a bit, and has trouble settling on a narrative style. But once it hits its stride, it remains compelling to the very end. Guterson’s film pays homage to the gritty verity of Mike Leigh (“Naked”, “Happy Go Lucky”). He also employs Leigh’s dry, morbid and sometimes unnerving sense of humor. It probably doesn’t hurt that Seattle and London have comparable weather. An overcast sky goes a long way toward conveying melancholy.
Credit is also due to the non-actors who are playing scripted versions of themselves. They clearly understand their characters’ motivations and have no trouble at all dispatching them to the audience. Amateur performers can sometimes take you out of a film. But the real Dave, Bob and Britt just make you want to join them for a beer.
Rather than making their age the punch line to the younger audience, Guterson chose to let these old goats serve as a window into the future. When the elderly are hidden from view in their group homes, they are but an abstract idea, removed from the radar of the callow. But Britt, Bob and Dave represent three possible futures. They are a reminder that people don’t become irrelevant just because they’ve left the work force and are (maybe) collecting Social Security. In some ways, life is just as long as it is short.