By Elias Savada.
The more you laugh at David Gold, the more you want to smack him on the side of his loopy head. He’s the central character in Guidance — the feature debut from Canadian writer-director Pat Mills (who also stars) — and the world is his Goliath. His faults are biblical in size; his odds of success (in anything) are slim. He’s been immature for all his 36 years, cut off from his parents (self imposed, and his sister isn’t far behind), and refuses to deal with newly diagnosed stage 3 skin cancer (which he indifferently “treats” with a tanning bed session). Oh, he’s broke, an alcoholic, a smoker, maladjusted, and in a constant state of denial. His sole weapon is his fathomless well of irresponsibility, which appears to be no match for the unsuspecting faculty at Grusin High, where he bamboozles the school principal and secures a probationary job as a guidance counselor. Maybe he just cares too much, in a “bad teacher,” School of Rock sort of way.
The film is a natural progression from Pat’s First Kiss, the animated autobiographical short Mills shot on a cell phone, and the writer-director’s comic approach in 5 Dysfunctional People in a Car, made in 2009. There’s also his hilarious Babysitting Andy (2007). He’s even handled drama (with a touch of fantasy) in the message movie Marjorie, a short about the life of a depressed, overweight child who finds comfort in a secret world. His is a fish-out-of-water world.
For his first feature, the voice over (replacing Jason Phin, who did the honors in two of Mills’ award-winning shorts, including one playing another David — an all-knowing psychopathic dog) is supplied by Mills himself, but delivered as effeminate, Stuart Smalley-inspired mellow aspirations, which distinctly contrast his character’s real life situation. These are offshoots from the film’s opening moments, when David is still David (more on that in a moment) and he’s got a dreary gig uttering such inner awareness tidbits: “For the next 90 minutes [the film actually runs 80], you will be tranquil and at peace with your reality.” The delivery is smooth, but something’s off, and the audio engineer (his boss) is frustrated, wondering if the scrubby, blond-haired recording artist is drunk. At 9:30 in the morning. Further questioning David’s gay-sounding voice (the women listener’s apparently prefer a solidly heterosexual accent), the frustratingly ambiguous lad responds, “I’m not gay. I just have a gentle voice.”
As any self-medicating former child actor might do, David spends his adult life watching reruns of Wacky Street, his juvenile claim to fame, but finding new work as a thespian is often a short-lived, you-lack-the-skills-required hazard for his few employers. Among his misguided aspirations is helping teenagers. And thus, when he browses the off- and on-line want ads, skipping over the “sexy men for gay web cam” position, he focuses on the high school student support counselor slot that has suddenly opened up. “Perfect!” he reflects to himself. Studying a web video by a real youth counselor, David appropriates the mannerisms, dialogue, wardrobe, eyeglasses, resume, and name, Roland Brown, for his interview.
Naturally, David — oops, Roland — gets the job. The dysfunctional teaching staff turns him off. The gay gym teacher (David Tompa) is hot to trot with the new arrival. The snobbish Schlitzes (Jen Goodhue and Ian Matthews) partake in one of the film’s running gags, nearly running Roland down with their car every morning. The students, which include a variety of parentally abused, Goth, and shy misfits, take to his socially awkward, and ultimately felonious, shenanigans, with drunken (literally) abandon. That includes the abused Jabrielle, with a marvelous performance delivered by Zahra Bentham, reminiscent of Gabourey Sidibe’s breakout role as Precious back in 2009.
Mills ambles through his film in a fog of delusional self-perception that exaggerates the horrid time he experienced in high school. “If only I had an immature, sexually repressed, alcoholic for a guidance counselor. If David Gold were my guidance counselor, maybe I would have turned out differently?” Well he’s done fine, in the long run. Guidance has a lot of charm when you look beyond its darkly comic surface. I don’t know what took this film so long to get out to the masses since its premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, because it’s definitely crowd (LGBT or straight) fun. A very impressive jump by Mr. Mills into the big time. He can play misguided as long as he wants. We need the laughs.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.