Life Coach: Mills’ Debut a Showcase for Own Multi-talents
Toronto based filmmaker Pat Mills makes his directorial debut with Guidance, a dark hearted comedy that gets a lot of traction from exaggerated, inappropriate behavior draping its endearing core. Aping the hook of Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (2003), Mills manages to surpass David Spade’s limitations with a basic premise that has a myriad of possibilities, and, as far as comedies hinged on adults behaving badly goes, Mills’ film works on a variety of entertaining levels. Director, screenwriter, and star, his strongest asset happens to be himself in an entertaining performance that is as unabashedly off-putting as it is strangely empathetic. His onscreen persona manages to help us overlook some of the film’s minor sleights to the development of supporting characters necessary for the attempted third act pathos. Nevertheless, this is an impressionable first feature, one deserving of attention as it begins its sprint on the fest circuit.
David Gold (Mills), an alcoholic actor desperately trying to recreate his glory days as a child star in popular television series “Wacky Street,” seems to have come to the end of his rope in the entertainment industry. Fired from another dead end, non-union voice over job, his desperation for money sends him on a job search. Seeing an ad for a high school guidance counselor, David applies, reinventing a persona (and identity) of someone he chances upon in a YouTube video during his research for the falsification. Due to the unexpected death of the previous counselor, and the principal’s impending trip away, David gets the job on a temporary basis. Spending his days drinking in his office and avoiding the rather icy staff of teachers (with the exception of the gay Physical Education teacher who sets his lascivious sights on David, even though the counselor adamantly insists he’s straight), he begins to develop a bond with several troubled students through his unconventional and inappropriate behavior. His inability and resistance to growing up places him in a relatable, adolescent mind frame, and soon he’s changing some of their lives for the better. But his relationship with one student, Jabrielle (Zahra Bentham), makes him realize he has a lot of changes to make for himself.
As it’s narrative gets underway, it’d be remiss not compare Mills’ David to Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher, though his motivations seem grounded more in everyday realism. The film’s look and tone will surely remind many of Abe Sylvia’s 2010 debut, Dirty Girl, thrown in with a few parallels with the inappropriate teacher/student relationship from Half Nelson (2006). But when Guidance is operating at its peak powers, Mills really seems like the drug addled and deranged version of Mary Poppins.
Since the educational system has basically turned into a highly intricate babysitting game for children whose parents have no idea how to (or maybe no interest) in dealing with them, the role of the high school guidance counselor is rather the most obvious substitute available to teens, a figurehead of emotional outreach. The methods of David Gold are surely inappropriate, but one can surely see a method to his madness. A shot of booze juice does help the medicine go own. So, it’s unfortunate that the often spells out a bit too clearly the obvious messages we’re supposed to take away from this portrait of a man who never grew up, spinning swiftly out of control. “He has more in common with the students than with us,” mutters a disgruntled colleague in the teacher’s conference room gossip trough.
David Gold seems the type of counselor we would have seen populate the milieu of the television series of Strangers With Candy, and he’s not too far removed from the one played in the 2006 prequel film, played in cameo by Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s also refreshing to see such a gloriously uninhibited and nearly unlikeable queer character in an ever restrictive era where political correctness still dominates LGBT representation in the cinema.
While David’s closeted existence is funny considering his flamboyant behavior, this is also subversive commentary on multiple levels, going beyond merely an additional facet of the character’s extreme self-loathing. There’s a cynical underbelly to Guidance, which begins with that shit-eating grin of a title, and the influence of early works by directors like Payne and Solondz seems evident.
We can’t help but feel pity for David, something which gives Mills’ film a bit of necessary flint—beneath the repellant act, he’s sad and alone, a victim of circumstance. Yet Guidance sometimes exhibits some forced moments, such as when David engages in action that must further the plot, like a labored conversation in a call placed to a student’s mother. While this develops the dramatic climax, we’ve already assumed the said student probably isn’t living in a loving and stable environment. Instead, the magic of Guidance is revealed in the very funny, sometimes endearing moments David shares with certain students during his mad and improbable masquerade.
Reviewed on September 5th at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival – Discovery Programme. 83 Minutes