Owen Kline’s debut stars Daniel Zolghadri as an aspiring underground cartoonist who rejects high school and the suburbs after the death of his mentor.
Protected and creative teenagers tend to romanticize the screwed up lives of their artistic heroes. Many of them believe it is necessary to live like them in order to imitate their work. Raw truth, the substance of art, does not exist in public school hallways and beautifully decorated living rooms. He lives “out there” where the “real people” live, with all their unsexy poverty and well-deserved misery. This myth perfectly frames a relatively safe family life as a force of opposition. If rebellion naturally requires having enemies, then there are none better for white suburban children than a comfortable middle-class existence and supportive parents.
It’s the epiphany that Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), the budding cartoonist at the heart of Owen Kline’s feature debut “Funny Pages,” reaches when his art teacher and mentor Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis) dies. in a freak car accident. After being arrested for breaking into his high school to steal Katano’s job, then rejecting a family friend’s lawyer in favor of the services of a public defender, Robert informs his frustrated parents ( Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais) that he dropped out of high school. He then moves out of his parents’ house in Princeton, New Jersey, buys a cheap car from a comic book store owner, rents a sketchy basement apartment in Trenton, and lands a data entry job in the office of the public defender who kept him out. from prison.
Eager to live in the “real world”, Robert throws himself headlong into the depths of humanity.
At the public defender’s office, Robert crosses paths with Wallace (Matthew Maher), a hostile man who worked as a color separator at Image Comics. Desperate to find a mentor to replace Katano, Robert clings to Wallace, despite all the outward signs of instability (after all, he’s accused of assaulting a pharmacist) and his obviously insignificant status in the comic book world. . Kline – who wrote, directed and co-edited the film – carefully subverts both the former mentor/young upstart and the “never meet your heroes” formulas by casting the experienced adviser in question as an antagonist. Wallace has no interest in advising Robert, but Robert brings him into his orbit anyway because, despite his protests against living on his own terms, he craves advice and support.
A fan of comics and a cartoonist himself, Kline carefully crafts the hermetic world of “Funny Pages” so that it intensely resembles that of an imaginary graphic novel, likely published by Fantagraphics in the 90s. Every character and setting may have distinct personalities, but they all reflect Kline’s perspective, which favors the eccentrics, misfits, and fetishists of alternative culture over members of “straight” society.
The individuals who walk through the public defender’s office or the comic book store in the film are not presented as strangers, although they clearly are. Instead, it’s just the people who organically make up Robert’s little world. Cinematographers Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny love shooting these characters close-up, often magnifying their features to super 16mm, much like an underground comic book artist would. If there’s any sensationalism or dread in photography, it’s entirely incidental to the main purpose of elevating normal-looking people to the big screen, a noble gesture too overlooked these days.
Produced by Benny and Josh Safdie and their prominent collaborator Ronald Bronstein (among others), “Funny Pages” owes debts to a handful of artistic ancestors. There are nuances of Terry Zwigoff’s “ghost world” in his portrayal of resentful youth and niche culture. Maher’s splenetic spray resembles a more angry version of the Dore Mann character in Bronstein’s only standout feature “Frownland.”
The film’s floaty aggressiveness feels carried over 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 are largely reminiscent of the works of Robert Downey Sr. Kline filters these errant influences into its own personal aesthetic rather than simply wearing them on one’s sleeve. Ideas can be recycled into “fun pages”, but they are converted into something distinct.
The character of Robert particularly strikes as a specific creation, even if his aspirations and his rights have precedents. It’s cheap and easy to caricature a privileged character by making them blindly obtuse about their own behavior so that an audience can safely feel superior. Kline, however, gives Robert an informed perspective: he deliberately engages in self-destructive and alienating acts, despite knowing better, because he thinks it will give him an advantage. His misguided poverty tourism stems from a sincere inquiry into the lives of others, even if that’s still water for the creative mill. He wears a layered pose of cool above his head and recklessly falls forward even when common sense dictates a break.
Of course, “Funny Pages” doesn’t excuse Robert’s cocky arrogance; in fact, it’s almost too on the nose when Robert’s dad (after his son invites Wallace to his house on Christmas without his permission) mocks him, saying, “That’s spoiled shit.” Nonetheless, Kline conveys a generous understanding of Robert’s motivations, as they are rooted in a random journey of self-discovery.
Zolghadri’s endearing and obnoxious performance deserves much of the credit for making every nuance of Robert’s character readable. He rarely betrays his character’s self-awareness or fear, at least until things go particularly wrong. Although the Robert-Wallace dynamic takes up much of “Funny Pages,” Kline provides Zolghadri with several actors to spar with, including Miles Emmanuel, who plays Robert’s best friend and endless punching bag Miles, and Michael Townsend Wright, who plays Barry, the eccentric man who rents Robert the basement apartment.
These two actors go to great lengths not to reduce their characters to their most off-putting qualities. Despite his excessive clumsiness, Miles charms due to his unwavering confidence in himself and Robert; and while Barry certainly exudes something of an unsettlingly scruffy vibe, he also sports a quality of old-fashioned mild manners that keeps him from portraying himself as a potential threat.
At the same time, “Funny Pages” doesn’t hide its pervasive sense of menace, Kline simply hides it in comedy. The funniest sequence in the movie involves Wallace pressuring Robert to upset a pharmacist to prove he’s generally unstable – every aspect of this scene, from Zolghadri’s trepidation to his interactions with a distressed elderly woman ( Louise Lasser), is comical, and yet its overall thrust, that is, an unhinged stranger forcing a teenager to provoke a stranger, is on paper nerve-wracking.
Likewise, Robert clearly takes pleasure in calling his basement apartment “a shithole” until a disturbing incident forces him to realize what it really means. When precocious teens move into adult spaces, with all their unfiltered naughtiness and distressing detail, they tend to realize just how much they have left to grow. The crucial irony underlying “Funny Pages” is that Robert never needed to seek inspiration from the underworld of society: the film opens with two rather traumatic scenes that would have provided him with much material for the coming years.
Yet even though “Funny Pages” is a coming-of-age story, Kline refuses to include any explicit lessons. After a wacky and eventful final act, it ends abruptly on a shocked note in which a number of readings about Robert’s state of mind can be projected. It’s unclear if he’s internalized any of the alarming events he set in motion or plans to masochistically continue to take self-generated licks from the world.
“No one in this room is an artist!” Wallace shouts at Robert and Miles in a climactic scene, and while he means it with judgment and fatalism, it also serves as a potential self-image wake-up call. of Robert. Is art simply the act of taking from the world around you or is it about imbuing images with your sense of self? Is craftsmanship an end in itself or is it a means of expressing one’s soul? As “Funny Pages” ends, Robert only begins to ask himself these questions.
A24 will release “Funny Pages” in theaters on Friday, August 26.