Most leap to the never-ending strand of “Bad Santa” copycats starring Billy Bob Thornton when they think of movies featuring a surly adult abusing his power and stature. However, for me, the strongest comparison with writer-director-star Pat Mills’ “Guidance” is Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” – another movie in which a self-centred burnout living in the past proceeds to steamroll those who dare to criticize.
That said, “Guidance” improves and delights in places where “Young Adult” angered me. Reitman’s dark comedy didn’t work for me because too many bystanders enabled bratty princess Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) for no good reason. The people who enable “Guidance’s” main character David Gold (Mills) are inspired by his frank carelessness, and thus are persuaded through to give their head a shake.
In reality, Gold (under the pseudonym “Roland Brown”) is “winging it” – as he does with most things in his life. He can’t hold a job, simmers on his former success as a onetime child actor, fibs his way around an irritated landlord, and cheats his way into a job for which he has zero experience. He’s also apathetic towards his family (showing no pain when he dramatically scribbles out faces on family portraits) and has developed an alcohol addiction that serves as his best friend.
A character like David Gold is a difficult creature to tame. But Pat Mills does so flawlessly, while also serving as the film’s director and screenwriter. He does a helluva great job showing how well he can spin multiple plates on a film production.
Mills knows how to set up awkward conversations and run-ins, but he also knows that irresponsible people eventually have to take ownership of their missteps. When “Roland Brown” is caught in a lie, he doesn’t continue to spin his web. He denies, and is almost too lazy to bend the truth even further. The filmmaker has crafted David exceptionally well and provides enough conviction behind why he manipulates and how easily he can fool himself. One example: David records affirmation phrases during his fleeting day gigs, and these gradually help him gain confidence in all the wrong ways.
Around Mills’ stellar performance is a collection of funny, supporting characters. The students all hold their own, and their affection for David as their new off-kilter guidance councellor is very amusing. Meanwhile, the eccentric teachers don’t know whether to be impressed over his progress or scared that students actually like him.
”Guidance” is hilarious and earnestly clever. The third act has the appearance of a tangent-laced dream, as a new-found interest and concern between Gold and a troubled student spirals out of control. But Mills – always persistent in balancing tragedy with comedy – recognizes the repercussions, and isn’t afraid to allow the film’s maturing characters to face them head-on, leading “Guidance” towards a satisfying bittersweet conclusion.