Owen Kline is not the most obvious underground artist. The son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates may be best known for his performance as the younger sibling in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” a role he landed with zero acting ambition around the age of 13. Some privileged child stars follow such an impressive early turn by growing up in the public eye and amassing a filmography that would follow them into adulthood. Others have drug-fueled meltdowns. Kline, however, interned at Anthology Film Archives, dreamed of becoming a cartoonist, and eventually embraced a form of unfiltered, rough-and-tumble filmmaking that doesn’t exactly scream commerciality. Now, at the age of 30, he’s ready to explain himself.
“I always sort of reviled show business,” Kline said in an interview over lunch this month. “It was always repugnant to me. I’m really someone who’s resistant to showing my face in general.”
His movies are a different story. “Funny Pages,” Kline’s zany, subversive debut feature, ought to free him of any past baggage and establish an authentic new creative voice. The semi-fictionalized plight of 17-year-old cartoonist Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) who undergoes a series of depraved misadventures as he attempts to pursue his dreams in suburban New Jersey, the movie bears a noticeable thematic link to the early work of the Safdie brothers as well as their writing cohort Ronnie Bronstein, whose cringe-worthy character study “Frownland” is an obvious precedent. Bronstein and the Safdies produced the movie through their Elara Pictures banner and brought it to A24, which is something of a minor miracle at a time when few daring, subversive American movies get much support or even get made in the first place.
“I didn’t have high expectations for this movie,” Kline said, “but I worked really hard on it, because I always had an idea of the world I wanted it to be.” That was the world that excited him well before “The Squid and the Whale” came along. Setting aside the “Frownland” comparison, “Funny Pages” is essentially “Crumb” by way of “Clerks”: As Robert wastes his days at the local indie comic book store, drooling over the likes of Peter Bagge and Harvey Pekar, Kline crafts a gritty universe of awkward young men obsessed with the DIY aesthetic of the underground world. The chaotic circumstances that ultimately lead Robert to forge an unseemly bond with a dysfunctional color separator (Matthew Maher) feel like an extension of the unruly storytelling in the comics these characters adore.
Kline adores them, too. “I used to draw comic strips and shrink them down with a Xerox machine, then pasted them in between ‘Peanuts’ and ‘Mother Goose,’” he said. He credits his childhood pal and future actor Griffin Newman for getting him into the form. “He showed me ‘Watchman,’ and then I had a wacky teacher in high school who was running the comics club,” Kline said.
Growing up in New York City, Newman and Kline would spend hours hanging around the Brooklyn comics shop Rocketship, which closed in 2010, inhaling the comics and their creators alike. “It was like a miracle,” Kline said. “You go under B and there’s the Bagge section. You don’t have that in other comic stores. Tony Millionaire would show up and everyone would get drunk with him. Art Spiegelman would be smoking outside. It was very strange and exciting to be 14 or 15 years old doing all that.”
Kline’s enthusiasm for comics evolved in tandem with his interest in cinema. He acted in “The Squid and the Whale” mostly to watch cinematographer Robert Yeoman at work. “Noah cast me in ‘Squid and the Whale’ because I was around that summer and it was sort of a favor to him,” Kline said. “He was auditioning all these cutesy cereal commercial kids and I was just an odd person he knew, so it made sense to him to cast me. I didn’t have any aspiration to get into the movies, so because of that, I did a better job than someone else might have.”
He emerged from that experience less certain about acting than directing as he settled into the related ecosystems of cinephilia and comics that New York offered up. He met the Safdies while hanging around Kim’s Video and developed a voracious appetite for repertory cinema at Anthology, where he worked under longtime film librarian Robert Haller, who inspired an unseemly mentor figure for Robert who appears early in the film.
But it was a series at the IFC Center called “Generation DIY,” which featured movies associated with the so-called “mumblecore movement” that included “Frownland,” that solidified Kline’s sensibilities. At the age of 16, Kline finally saw a path toward consolidating his interests. “‘Frownland’ made me realize you could do something customized for its own mode,” he said. “People don’t want you to work that way, so it’s a little bit gonzo.”
Kline studied film and illustration at Pratt, then spent a few years working in retail and other odd jobs while tinkering with his script for “Funny Pages.” Robert and his buddies grew deeper and stranger as Kline built them out of the circumstances around him.
“It’s a lot of composites,” he said. “Movies about people doing nothing that have that Gen-X malaise, I’ve seen about a hundred thousand of those. I was to think about a certain time in your life when you’re really hard on yourself in the wrong areas and applying self-hatred in a self-destructive way. That was interesting to me — to see a character do that in a funny way.”
Much of the comedy comes at Robert’s expense even as the movie generates serious empathy for his circumstances. It would be a spoiler to reveal too much, but the closing act of “Funny Pages” is an eruption of deranged twists and miscalculations for the ages. The final shot is hilarious, touching, and tragic all at once. “At its core, I think it’s a comedy,” Kline said. “This guy is an overachiever in completely the wrong areas.”
Though he slithers away from questions about the autobiographical nature of the material, it’s hard not to see Robert’s hardships and the expectations of his upper-class parents in exactly those terms. Nevertheless, Kline said his parents’ own success in the film industry had little bearing on his current trajectory. “I don’t think about that too much,” he said. “As much as all that sounds exciting, my life is pretty small.”
He was reticent to evaluate his next steps but said he was futzing around with a new script. Though he signed with management company Mosaic, the essence of his filmmaking ambitions didn’t mandate an increase in scale. “I don’t know if I’ll ever actually feel that there needs to be another big wacky entertaining comedy,” he said. “We have plenty. I basically just want to disappear and make another movie under a rock.”
“Funny Pages” opens August 26, 2022.