By Josh Wolff | Drama
A high school psychologist struggles to keep his work and private lives apart and intact.

Charles is a psychologist and a counselor at a private Catholic school, where he deals with surly students and staff politics, often with a delicate balance of put-upon exasperation and equanimity.

But outside the school, Charles has his own issues, which he tries to keep separate from his professional life. But one night his carefully cordoned-off private life implodes and he finds himself in a rough spot — just when one of his students finds herself in a quandary as well. As the walls between Charles’s different lives fall down, he finds himself in a more vulnerable position than ever.

Writer-director Josh Wolff’s short dramedy rests on the foundation of a smartly written and paced script that lets finely-drawn characters drive the action and plot. With drily witty dialogue and excellent performances that rise to the comedic moments of the script while staying true to the deeper emotions driving behavior, it offers a window into one man’s journey toward living life with more honesty and openness.

Charles’s initial want is to maintain appearances of “normalcy” at the parochial school he works at, and the audience at first assumes he’s an everyman sort, complete with photos of his wife on his desk. But Charles is essentially presenting a lie, perhaps to fit in or to simply avoid the tensions and sticking points that come from working in a typically conservative environment.

That effort, though, has toxic effects on Charles’s private life, and eventually blows up in his face. Actor Ryan Kitley give a wonderfully layered performance that captures all parts of Charles’s arc as a character, from the weary, perfunctory professional facade he presents at work to his despair and grief when he loses his home life. There are notes of bitterness, anger and exhaustion in the performance, driving home the immense effort it takes to live a lie.

But when he collides with Rachel, one of his teenage students, at his lowest point, it opens up both the film and character into genuinely rich emotional territory. Rachel, played with great nuance and sarcastic wit by young actor Amy Frazzini, has her own troubles and, like Charles, hides it behind a tough shell. But when both realize the fuller truth of the other, the unmasking drives them not to further shame, but connection and understanding.

“Guidance” is sensitively directed, with naturalistic hand-held camerawork, brisk editing that captures both humor and nuance and warm cinematography that lends a heightened familiarity with the world of the film. But its subtly excellent craft doesn’t get in the way of viewers’ relationship to these engrossing characters, allowing the audience to truly care about them as they listen and learn from one another, even as their most vulnerable secrets are revealed. Charles and his student help one another and grow from that encounter. That character growth parlays them into a greater sense of authenticity, which ultimately fuels the film’s heartwarming ending. It’s a finish that, after some painful self-realizations, feels well-earned and genuinely hard-won.

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