As concerns over fraternity hazing have escalated, many colleges in the U.S. have explicitly banned the practice, Still, almost every year, students around the country die from alcohol poisoning or assault related to hazing. Now, one of the most anticipated films premiering at this year’s Sundance takes a hard look at the practice, and director Andrew Neel’s Goat stars Nick Jonas as a frat boy who begins to question the meaning of brotherhood when his actual brother (Ben Schnetzer) pledges his fraternity.
Goat’s main character (Schnetzer) gets his name from memoirist Brad Land, whose 2004 book recounted how as a 19 year old, he started college shortly after a vicious assault. Hoping to re-establish some normalcy and desperate to fit in, he joins his brother Brett’s (Jonas) fraternity, where he’s soon forced into a series of hellish events, all in the name of becoming a man.
“The film, at its core, is really about a lot of things, but especially this idea of brotherhood and masculinity,” Jonas says. “It’s the desire to feel accepted by these young men — and the lengths they’re willing to go to.”
Not only does Goat examine the manufactured brotherhood within a fraternity, but it’s also an in-depth look at the complicated relationship between two actual brothers, one of whom fits into the traditional masculine mold, and one who doesn’t.
“It’s an interesting dynamic, for sure, and it’s something I obviously relate to in a big way,” the former Jonas Brother says, laughing. “I have my real blood brothers, but we also had the same band and management team for years, and that bond, that brotherhood, is within that as well. There’s a camaraderie there, and it’s been a big theme in my life.”
As Brad moves further into the pledging process, he’s faced with increasingly twisted demands from his frat brothers. “To me, it sort of became a horror film, during the hazing section of the movie,” says Neel, who’s best known for helming documentaries like Darkon and Alice Neel, as well as the 2012 drama King Kelly. “It was an opportunity to play with this neorealist, horror film crossover. I mean, obviously, there’s nothing fantastical or unreal about what happens in this story [but] it’s how the audience experiences it.”
For some of the more brutal hazing scenes, Neel would just let the camera run and allow the actors to push things as far as they could.
“I found myself on the ride home from set every day needing a bit of a decompress,” Jonas adds. “Luckily, the set was about 40 minutes from the hotel, so there was about 40 minutes to just take a deep breath and break from the intensity of the day.”
Neel emphasizes that the film isn’t about demonizing all frat boys, but both he and Jonas say they hope Goat sparks a discussion about the real pressures that students face on campuses around the country.
“I think it’s great if this film can raise awareness [of hazing], and I hope it does,” Neel says. “Kids die every year, either directly or indirectly from this kind of stuff. And it’s senseless, and it really should be stopped. I hope that the film can generate a dialogue around that. But maybe more importantly than just the little world of fraternities, I think there’s a systemic issue that men are facing. I grew up in a very liberal, progressive family, and I still feel that I’ve been subject to some of these masculine identity issues in my life. So I hope that maybe even the discussion can be broader than just frats. Men don’t really have an opportunity to discuss any of this stuff.”
Goat premieres Friday in dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival.