There are trace elements of “Strangers with Candy,” “Role Models” and the contrastingly serious “Half Nelson” in “Guidance,” but that doesn’t stop Pat Mills’ debut as writer-director-star from being a delight on its own terms. This comedy about a former TV child star turned train wreck who decides to take a high-school guidance counselor job — or rather, pose as someone appropriate for that position — is consistently amusing and surprisingly uncynical in the end. It’s certainly got modest sleeper potential, though outside Canada, the pic may find more of a welcome in home formats than in theaters.
David Gold (Mills) is the 30-ish onetime star of the TV kids’ show “Wacky Street,” which he spends plenty of time watching in reruns. His fortunes have fallen since that early peak, however. We first meet him doing an audio recording of New Age affirmations, a last-resort acting gig he’s promptly fired from for being drunk at 9 a.m. and “sounding too gay.” Indeed, everyone but David seems to think he’s gay — but then, he’s in denial on many, many fronts, the latest being a diagnosis of Stage 3 skin cancer.
Estranged from his family and on the verge of being evicted, he decides he wants to “help teenagers” (by means more lucrative than buying them alcohol at the liquor store), and studies for a high-school guidance counselor position as he would for a role. Lacking much imagination, he steals the identity of an online teen counselor, repeating the man’s vacuous truisms (“Teenagers are complicated, but they’re just like us!”) until he’s learned the part by heart. Amazingly, he does get hired at Grusin High by the harried principal (Kevin Hanchard), who needs to replace his just-deceased counselor before going on vacation.
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In his new guise, complete with Pee-wee Hermanesque clothes and body language, David stirs the suspicions of Grusin’s jaded staff. He also stirs something else in gay gym teacher Scott (David Tompa), who takes him for a closet case and begins pitching aggressive, unwanted woo. David’s off-the-wall advice to his needy students, however, begins to score some surprising successes, aided by the vodka shots he recklessly shares with them. Shy girl Rhonda (Eleanor Zichy) is tipsily empowered to get a boyfriend; goth Alexondria (Emily Piggford), faced with an authority figure who has the mind of a self-pitying depressed adolescent, thinks she’s never been so fully understood before; and campus pot dealer Brent (Alex Ozerov) gets a new client, as well as someone who appreciates his untapped potential.
HIs biggest object of concern, however, is Jabrielle (Zahra Bentham), a perpetual class-skipper stuck in an abusive home situation. The frequently inappropriate but mutually supportive relationship that evolves between them soon takes a leap into wilder terrain, with Jabrielle tagging along as he spirals fully out of control.
The modest pic’s laughs get bigger as it goes along, and so does its surprising warmth. The dynamic between David and Jabrielle may owe an awful lot to that between Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps in “Half Nelson,” but it’s still impressive how Mills manages to work that poignance into what’s otherwise a cheerful exercise in bad-taste (but not mean-spirited) comedy. Performances are sharp, with Mills (who actually started out as a child actor on a Nickolodeon series) channeling a bit of Paul Lynde, albeit with a softer center, as the spectacularly hapless protag. In a rare moment of clear self-awareness, David tells a student, “Let’s just say I exist in the space between caring too much and not giving a fuck.”
Making his first feature after several well-received shorts, Mills displays considerable confidence and skill executing his own well-tuned screenplay. The small-scale, Toronto-shot pic is nicely turned in design and tech departments.