Sheltered, creative adolescents tend to romanticize the fucked-up lives of their artistic heroes. Many of them believe it’s necessary to live like them in order to emulate their work. Raw truth, the stuff of art, doesn’t exist in public school hallways and nicely decorated living rooms. It lives “out there” where the “real people” live, with all their unsexy poverty and well-earned misery. This myth neatly frames a relatively safe home life as an oppositional force. If rebellion naturally demands having enemies, then there are no better ones for suburban white kids than a comfortable middle-class existence and supportive parents.
This is the epiphany Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), the budding cartoonist at the heart of Owen Kline’s debut feature “Funny Pages,” reaches when his art teacher and mentor Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis) dies in a freak car accident. After getting arrested for breaking into his high school to steal back Katano’s work, and subsequently rejecting the legal counsel of a family friend in favor of a public defender’s services, Robert informs his frustrated parents (Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais) that he’s dropping out of high school. He subsequently moves out of his parents’ house in Princeton, New Jersey, buys a cheap car from a comic store owner, rents a sketchy basement apartment in Trenton, and acquires a data entry job in the office of the public defender who kept him out of jail.
Eager to live in the “real world,” Robert throws himself headfirst into the deep end of humanity.
At the public defender’s office, Robert crosses paths with Wallace (Matthew Maher), a hostile man who used to work as a color separator at Image Comics. Desperate for a mentor to replace Katano, Robert latches onto Wallace, despite all outward signs of instability (after all, he’s accused of assaulting a pharmacist) and his transparently insignificant status in the comic world. Kline — who wrote, directed, and co-edited the film — neatly subverts both the old mentor/young upstart and the “never meet your heroes” formulas by rendering the experienced advisor in question an antagonistic nobody. Wallace has no interest in counseling Robert, but Robert brings him into his orbit anyway because, despite his protests about living on his own terms, he craves guidance and support.
A comics aficionado and a cartoonist himself, Kline carefully crafts the hermetic world of “Funny Pages” so that it acutely resemble one of an imaginary graphic novel, mostly likely released by Fantagraphics in the ’90s. Every character and setting might have discrete personalities, but they all reflect Kline’s perspective, which privileges oddballs and misfits and alternative culture fetishists over members of “straight” society.
The individuals that move through the public defender’s office or the comics store in the film are not framed as outsiders, even though they clearly are. Instead, they’re merely the people that organically make up Robert’s small world. Cinematographers Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny relish shooting these characters in close-up, often magnifying their features in super 16mm, much like an underground comic artist would in print. If there’s any sensationalism or luridness in the photography, it’s entirely incidental to the primary goal of elevating regular-looking people to the big screen, a noble gesture too unrecognized these days.
Produced by the Benny and Josh Safdie and their prominent collaborator Ronald Bronstein (among others), “Funny Pages” owes debts to a handful of artistic forebears. There are shades of Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” in its portrait of resentful youth and niche culture. Maher’s splenetic sputtering resembles an angrier version of Dore Mann’s character in Bronstein’s outstanding sole feature “Frownland.”
The film’s free-floating aggression feels transposed from any number of early Mike Leigh or John Cassavetes films. (Or the Safdies’ films for that matter, some of which Kline has been involved with.) Its episodic nature and normalized sense of anarchy and delirium broadly recalls the works of Robert Downey Sr. Kline filters these stray influences into his own personal aesthetic rather than simply wearing them on his sleeve. Ideas might be recycled in “Funny Pages,” but they’re converted into something distinct.
The Robert character particularly scans as a specific creation, even if his aspirations and entitlement have precedents. It’s easy and cheap to caricature a privileged character by making them blindingly obtuse to their own behavior so that an audience can feel safely superior. Kline, however, lends Robert a knowing perspective: he purposefully engages in willfully self-destructive, alienating acts despite knowing better because he thinks it will give him an edge. His misguided poverty tourism stems from a sincere inquiry into the lives of others, even if it’s still grist for the creative mill. He wears a layered pose of in-over-his-head cool and recklessly tumbles forward even when basic common sense dictates pause.
Of course, “Funny Pages” doesn’t excuse Robert’s snotty arrogance; in fact, it’s almost too on the nose when Robert’s father (after his son invites Wallace to his house on Christmas without his permission) sneers to him that, “This is spoiled brat shit.” Nevertheless, Kline conveys a generous understanding of Robert’s motivations because they’re rooted in a haphazard journey of self-discovery.
Zolghadri’s endearingly obnoxious performance deserves much of the credit for making every shade of Robert’s character legible. He rarely betrays any of his character’s self-consciousness or fear, at least until things go especially haywire. Although the Robert-Wallace dynamic takes up much of “Funny Pages,” Kline provides Zolghadri with multiple actors with which to spar, including Miles Emmanuel, who plays Robert’s best friend and interminable punching bag Miles, and Michael Townsend Wright, who plays Barry, the eccentric man who rents Robert the basement apartment.
Both of these actors go to great lengths not to reduce their characters to their most off-putting qualities. Despite his overeager awkwardness, Miles charms because of his unflappable confidence in both himself and Robert; and although Barry certainly gives off something of an unsettling slovenly vibe, he also sports an old-school mild-mannered quality that keeps him from coming off like a potential threat.
At the same time, “Funny Pages” doesn’t hide its pervasive sense of menace, Kline just cloaks it in comedy. The film’s funniest sequence involves Wallace pressuring Robert to antagonize a pharmacist to prove that he’s generally volatile — every single aspect of this scene, from Zolghadri’s trepidation to his interactions with a distressed elderly woman (Louise Lasser), is comedic, and yet its general thrust, i.e., an unbalanced stranger forces a teenager to provoke a stranger, is on-paper distressing.
Similarly, Robert clearly gets a kick out of calling his basement apartment “a shithole” until a disturbing incident forces him to realize what that actually means. When precocious teenagers move through adult spaces, with all their unfiltered nastiness and distressing details, they tend to realize how much growing up they have left to do. The crucial irony that underlies “Funny Pages” is that Robert never actually needed to search for inspiration from society’s underbelly: the film opens with two fairly traumatic scenes that would have provided him with plenty of material for years to come.
Yet, as much as “Funny Pages” is a coming-of-age story, Kline declines to include any explicit lesson learning. Following a hectic farcical last act, it abruptly ends on a shellshocked note in which it’s possible to project a number of readings onto Robert’s state of mind. It’s unclear if he’s internalized any of the alarming events he’s put into motion or if he plans to masochistically continue taking self-generated licks from the world.
“No one in this room is an artist!,” Wallace screams at Robert and Miles during a decisive scene, and although he means that judgmentally and fatalistically, it also serves as a potential wake-up call to Robert’s self-image. Is art merely the act of taking from the world around you or is it about imbuing images with your sense of self? Is craft an to end itself or is it a means to express one’s soul? As “Funny Pages” closes, Robert only begins to ask himself those questions.
A24 will release “Funny Pages” in theaters on Friday, August 26.