Having already made the rounds on the Toronto film circuit “Guidance” is the debut feature film of its writer, director, star, Pat Mills.
Former child actor David Gold (Mills) deludes himself into believing high school guidance counselor is a perfect career choice for him. Partly result of the protagonist’s mental break, part desperation to pay rent, “Guidance” is an enjoyable but unremarkable dark comedy.
When we first meet Gold the 30-something former star of the kids’ show “Wacky Street,” which he spends his down time watching on tape, is now on a last resort acting gig. He is recording affirmations of self-worth- which he gets fired from for being drunk and sounding “too gay”. His reply: “I’m not gay, I just have a gentle voice.” He’s the only one who seems to think he’s straight, and this theme of denial runs throughout the film to the tune of Gold’s “gentle voice” relaying self-worth proverbs usually in lieu of soundtrack.
After this last defeat, Gold also finds out he has stage 3 skin cancer- another thing he doesn’t want to acknowledge. Cue the wacky downwards spiral.
Unable to turn to his estranged family and on the verge of being evicted, Gold decides he wants a career (something he can get without college, because as an actor “he can be anyone”) where he gets to “help teenagers” (other than buying alcohol for them). After seeing an ad for high school guidance counselor, he decides this is the obvious transition from audio self-help actor.
Gold gets into character for his ‘role’ as guidance counselor by watching one youtube video of a teen counselor and then assuming the man’s identity. He studies the counselor’s sayings (“Teenagers are complicated, but they’re just like us!”) until he’s learned them by heart. Gold is then almost immediately hired by Grusin High principal (Kevin Hanchard), who needs to replace his recently-deceased guidance counselor before leaving the school for a conference.
Gold, who is immature and trapped by his youthful glory, connects to the students because he is basically an overgrown teen. With all the care of a dying man, he pours them shots in his office, gets high with them, and advises them how to be the best sluts they can be. He’s the campus’ gay best friend all the while deluding himself into believing he has found the role he was meant to play.
In some ways he isn’t wrong. Gold tells a student, “Let’s just say I exist in the space between caring too much and not giving a fuck.”- a statement that is one of the only clearly truthful ones he makes.
Even though Gold is able to form real connections with the students, because he listens to them in a way the school’s cartoonish staff doesn’t, he is in over his head. Gold who can’t accept that he’s either gay, deathly ill, an alcoholic, and living a lie, is ill-equipped to deal with the very real problems his students have- beyond talking to boys.
One student, Jabrielle (Zahra Bentham), is stuck in an abusive home. Jabrielle, who is continuously told she isn’t good enough, needs more than his corny self-help tapes to tell her otherwise. When she becomes involved in Gold’s escalating downwards spiral, they form a tight, at times inappropriate connection. When Gold realizes that he truly wants to help her, not just buddy up with her, it takes him awhile to realize he needs to stop and take responsibility for his choices to do so meaningfully. He does get to the point where he can help her, and after all the dark turns, the movie ends on a lighthearted note.
“Guidance” brings to mind many other adults behaving badly films, like “Bad Teacher” and even “School of Rock”, with traces of “Strangers with Candy”, and does very little to stand out from others in its vein. The noticeably low-budget doesn’t help but also doesn’t detract from the overall experience. That said, “Guidance” isn’t completely unenjoyable, Mill’s performance lends the movie the standout quirk it desperately needs to separate itself from the pack.
The fact that Mills is also confidently and skillfully acting in his own sharply written screenplay is impressive to watch. Though some of the dialogue often falls flat the comedy is more solid than not and the heartfelt performances of Mills and Bentham gives the movie a surprising warmth.
Guidance opens theatrically August 21st.
Tags: Guidance, Pat Mills, Zahra Bentham