Not only is Guidance hilariously uncouth, it might be one of the best movies ever made about borderline personality disorder. This is not a warm, snuggly comedy that you can watch with grandma and grandpa. No, this movie is the reprobate uncle that nobody wants to bail out of jail. Yet, despite its unabashed rudeness, Pat Mills’ consistently-funny debut doesn’t have a cynical bone its body. Our memorable hero just wants to help people, no matter how much it hurts them.
Imagine Stuart Smalley quitting his mood stabilizers cold turkey and you get some idea what to expect from David Gold (Mills). Twenty-five years ago, David was the star of a hit children’s show called “Wacky Street.” Today, he’s an unemployed narcissist who drinks like a fish, curses like a sailor, and refuses to acknowledge his homosexuality. He’s a self-affirmation junkie who disregards every piece of advice he receives. In other words, he’s a complete mess and doesn’t even realize it.
For all his denial and self-loathing, however, David yearns to make a difference in the world. When he finds a ‘Help Wanted’ listing for a High School guidance counselor, it seems as though fate has finally smiled upon him. If only David had any experience as a counselor… But wait! In the YouTube age, anyone can be a counselor! David watches the helpful instructional video posted by Roland Brown and, suddenly, he’s an expert. Just to be safe, David adopts Roland Brown’s personality, mannerisms, fashion style, and assumes his identity. Once safely ensconced in his office, David begins dispensing advice (and controlled substances) that makes him an immediate hit with the school’s disaffected students.
Those expecting a re-tread of 2011’s horrendous Bad Teacher can breathe a sigh of relief. What makes Guidance refreshingly different is that David actually wants to help the kids. That his idea of helping includes telling a girl concerned about her promiscuity to really “slut it up” and “be an inspiration for all the other sluts out there,” doesn’t detract from his good intentions. In fact, his mentorship of the outcast Jabrielle (Zahra Bentham) is kind of heartwarming, in a terribly-misguided and damaging way.
At the heart of Guidance is Mills’ electric performance as David. Himself a veteran of children’s television (1979’s ill-fated You Can’t Do That on Television), Mills inhabits this character completely. Everything, from his barbed tongue to the fact “he dresses like a ventriloquist’s dummy,” paints a character whose only defense against self-loathing is comprehensive denial. As the story progresses, and David gets deeper and deeper into trouble, you go along for the ride simply because Mills refuses to leave you behind.
The key to success for any ‘curmudgeon with a heart-of-gold’ film is to keep that heart from beating for as long as possible. Guidance stays the course longer than most. In fact, Mills allows David’s life to careen completely off the cliff, deploying the emergency parachute only inches from the canyon floor. Another terrific choice is the embedded soundtrack of David’s self-affirmations as he goes about his daily atrocities. This makes for the film’s funniest, most ironic moments. Buying booze for under-aged boys isn’t particularly funny until you add the soothing voiceover, “I will help others achieve their goals,” making it safe for you to laugh at their corruption.
Mills keeps his direction minimalistic, allowing the performances to take center stage. Bentham is warm and accommodating as the troubled Jabrielle, and she has a dynamite screen chemistry with Mills. Tracey Hoyt has a blast chewing scenery as the ditzy school secretary, and the full-time faculty serves nicely as a disapproving peanut gallery for David’s exploits.
One possible criticism of Guidance is that it takes a long time to introduce Jabrielle as David’s primary project. Arguably too much time is taken indulging David’s indulgences. This adds to the texture of the story, but also detracts a bit from the emotional payoff at the end.
Still, Guidance is a modest film that reaches its objectives marvelously. It wants to shock you, but only with its audacity. This isn’t a hurtful film carried by insults, bodily humor, or ugliness. Quite the opposite, in fact. David, for all his wrongheadedness, wants these kids to like themselves, even if he can’t afford himself that same luxury. He’s not a bad dude; he’s just really messed up. “I exist in the space between caring too much and not giving a fuck,” David explains to a puzzled student. Turns out, that’s an extremely funny space to occupy.