Owen Kline’s darkly hilarious directorial debut “Funny Pages” is a coming-of-age tale that finds the sublime in the grotesque, and the profound in an absurd search for meaning in the basement apartments and comic book shops of Trenton, New Jersey. Kline showcases a simultaneously provocative and poignant point-of-view and delivers an instant indie classic of lo-fi tri-state area cinema.
Kline’s “Funny Pages” is a delightfully disgusting and daring debut, featuring a breakout performance from “Eighth Grade”’s Daniel Zolghadri, as well as a host of New York’s most unique character actors. It also has notes of the Safdie Brothers’ “Uncut Gems” (the brothers serve as producers and Kline helped out on their shorts), a similar subject matter to “American Splendor” and just a soupçon of the gross-out sensibility of “The Greasy Strangler.”
Our protagonist, the young Robert (Zolghadri) is an aspiring comic artist in the tradition of R. Crumb, Mad Magazine, and the like. His work prioritizes subversion over superheroes, and the only person who seems to understand Robert’s genius is his teacher, Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis, “Synechdoche, New York”), who shouts things like “Michael Jordan!” and “Kobe Bryant!” while paging through Robert’s dirty doodles. That disparity between praise and content sets the tone for the film, and helps us to understand Robert’s specific mindset. But after a life drawing session goes sideways, the teen is left adrift without his mentor.
Robert is an aspiring curmudgeon in the body of a naive yet cocksure young man, and he’s inexorably drawn to the Mr. Katano types: oddballs and weirdos on the fringes of society. His desire to live the true, gritty life of an artist is typical teenage rebellion, but accelerated by the loss of his teacher, and he acts out. After a brush with the law, he impulsively drops out of school and rejects the comforts of the suburban upper middle-class life in Princeton his parents (Josh Pais, “Joker” and Maria Dizzia “While We’re Young”) have afforded him.
He does what many a privileged young artist seeking some kind of hardship to inform his work does, cosplaying as poor. He purchases a broken-down sedan by selling some old comics and rents a space in a repulsively awful illegal boiler-room apartment with two older roommates, Barry (Michael Townsend Wright, “The Rat Pack”) and Steven (Cleveland Thomas Jr.). It’s as if living as abjectly as possible might inoculate Robert from his own privilege, or as if the grittiness of this existence might impart some authentic “subversion” into his work, a misbegotten penance of sorts. Mostly though, it’s just misguided flailing.
Working as an assistant for his Legal Aid attorney, Cheryl (Marcia DeBonis, “Uncut Gems”), Robert collides with a client, Wallace (Matthew Maher, “Our Flag Means Death”) and clings to him once he finds out that he once worked as a “color separator” at Image Comics. Thus begins a misbegotten courtship of Wallace to become his teacher, mentor or simply a connection to the comic book industry. His wooing involves causing a ruckus at the “Right Aid” pharmacy in Trenton where Wallace was arrested for an “outburst,” and in which Robert, posing as a “junior pharmacist” chucks a plastic horse Wallace’s nemesis, Richard, the pharmacist.
It all culminates in an invite to Robert’s parents’ house on Christmas Day for a drawing lesson, an event which, naturally, goes horribly awry, in all manner of awkward, chaotic ways. Wallace, is strange, potentially violent, and a criminal, but somehow he becomes a voice of reason in “Funny Pages,” seeing through Robert’s machinations, though never realizing the motivations behind them. Through Wallace, we see the shades of Robert’s obsessive narcissism, and the ridiculous notions about “art” and “soul” that Robert and his pesky friend Miles (Miles Emanuel, “Calidris”) have internalized and now parrot back at him.
This world is rendered in deliciously grainy Super 16mm film, shot by Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny, and it’s one that’s drab, bleak, but shot through with threads of anarchic, outlandish energy. Kline demonstrates a real knack for finding the preposterous in everyday life, paying special attention to those who would otherwise go unremarked. The legendary Louise Lasser (“Bananas”) makes a brief but memorable appearance in the pharmacy, begging Robert for a Percocet, while also puncturing his silly “junior pharmacist” ruse.
These ridiculous scenarios toggle with a weird ease between the mundane and the horrifying, thanks in part to Robert’s nonchalant reactions to just about anything. The young man is so focused on his identity as an artist that he seems to not notice the ludicrous, and sometimes downright dangerous situations he puts himself in. The seriousness with with he takes his craft leads to some wildly absurd and even threatening situations, and it’s the juxtaposition of those tones that makes the film work, and makes it so funny.
Even if the ending feels a bit rushed, or doesn’t quite hang together, refusing to tie up loose ends, “Funny Pages” is still such a bracing example of a singular, and distinctive, new voice, that one can’t help but love it, grody toenails and all.
“Funny Pages” opens in U.S. theaters and on demand August 26.