When we first glimpse the hero of Pat Mills's comedy Guidance, washed up ex-child star David Gold (Mills), he's sitting behind a radio microphone and feeding his listeners with the kinds of self-help platitudes popularized by Tony Robbins and Wayne Dyer. As we watch this calamity unfold, we're hit with an onslaught of hilarious incongruities. David's on-air truisms seem suited for fervent exhortations, but his delivery is effete and anemic. Meanwhile, his pillow hair, dishevelled clothes and obvious hangover suggest that it might behoove him to actually follow his own advice. Later, when the broadcast producer makes a reference to David's gay mannerisms, he fervently denies being homosexual, all evidence to the contrary.
The message in this sequence is clear: this is a farce about self-delusion and myopia - about a character so out of touch with himself in so many ways that his day-to-day survival is a miracle. And when he gets a job by impersonating a high school guidance counselor, it's a two-pronged comedic sword. On one hand, we get the apparent lunacy of this guy daring to offer advice to bewildered adolescents. On the other, we have David's aggressive need to try to "act normal" among his adult peers. With his brown corduroy jacket, horn-rims and canned pop psychology speeches, he's like some warped parody of a David Smart Coronet host, and every stab at conventionality that he makes comes off as egregiously weird and perverted. This is comedy in its purest form: the wide chasm between the graceful human behavior that we're somehow programmed to expect, and the outrageous gaffes that occur when the subject repeatedly falls on his face. Only here, we get an added layer: the protagonist's cluelessness.
The movie's most ingenious twist is its central irony: as wrong-headed as David is in many arenas, the guidance counselor job is his one decision that sort-of makes sense. While the other adults at the high school are blind to the problems of the students, David begins to zero in on grave issues that his colleagues have missed, such as the abusive home life of a young African American girl. Though David makes felonious choices that spell imminent disaster, such as pouring the teens shots of vodka and encouraging them to hot wire a car; he also lacks the pretensions and the prejudices of other adults, and exists on the same psychological and emotional plane as these kids. With some nuances, we sense that he could be the answer to the students' prayers.
This film is getting some comparisons in the press to Strangers with Candy, though such assertions are unfair. Guidance is far superior in one key respect: the Paul Dinello and Amy Sedaris series was entirely barbed spoof, while beneath its cracked irreverence, Mills's picture has a warm and thoughtful center. The result is something much closer to what Judd Apatow is always aiming for: a wicked adult laugh-fest with razor-sharp acuities. There are also traces of a more obscure influence - satires of the 60s such as Philippe DeBroca's King of Hearts and Karel Reisz's Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, which - like this film - anarchically celebrate madness as the only "sane" response to a universe that is already around the bend. "The world is shitty," David observes at one point. "And if you fit into it, you're shitty, too."
Despite his status as a tyro, Mills scripts, directs, and acts with a master's hand throughout. Each scene establishes and sustains its own unique comedic rhythm. Some work their way up to a pop, with a single gag or button line, others - such as a riotous bit where David meets and insults one faculty peer after another ("Did you wear crushed velvet in the '90s?") - pile belly laugh upon belly laugh and build to a hysterical crescendo. And as a whole, the movie is beautifully and meticulously structured. It has the schema of a classic satire, that commences by skewering lunatic behavior, then segues seamlessly into a more earnest paean to embracing one's true nature, warts and all - capped off with a devilishly funny nod to Alan Parker's Midnight Express in the epilogue.
It's an audacious move for a filmmaker to star in his or her debut, but Mills sets this high bar for himself and clears it with dexerity. It will be interesting to observe his successive projects, and to see if he extends the David character with enough variations to keep him vibrant and compelling, or forks off in another direction altogether. Regardless, though, the writer-director's premiere effort announces him as a major new onscreen talent and a fresh and welcome comedic voice.