The alternative comics scene is historically a source of some truly gnarly outsider art. For decades it was a haven for dirtbags, weirdoes, and the crustiest misfits with no interest in working for the “Big Two” of comics, Marvel or DC. But with the heyday of R. Crumb, Zap Comix, Harvey Kurtzman, and their ilk now bygone, how can an artist hope to embody their spirit? Particularly if you’re a terribly unworldly teenager who’s lived a comfortable upper-middle-class life far removed from the kind of hustle and deprivation that sharpened your idols’ pens? In Funny Pages, young Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) decides to voluntarily subject himself to hardship in the misguided belief that it’ll be good for his craft, instigating a humorously warped coming of age.
Robert is talented (actual indie-comic creator Johnny Ryan was enlisted to do his illustrations, and they convincingly resemble the work of a well-practiced amateur). But he’s impatient, and elects to drop out of high school and move out of his family home after his beloved art teacher dies in front of him in a freak accident. His craving for “real” experience sends him on a picaresque journey into the underbelly of urban New Jersey, and the film consistently makes his Panglossian enthusiasm endearing, even as it ruthlessly mocks the idea that there’s anything inherently more artistically authentic or valuable about a hardscrabble existence. With puppy-like eagerness, he tours the most miserable apartment I’ve seen in a movie in some time. It’s a windowless basement unit occupied by two profoundly unnerving middle-aged men (one of whom he will share a room with) who are always coated in sweat and grime. A fish tank in the kitchen is filled with green water, while the water that comes out of the shower is brown. Robert asks to stay that very night. When he looks at the $63 from his part-time job as an assistant to a public defender at the courthouse and whispers “wow,” it’s hard to tell if it’s just youthful naïveté at his first paycheck or delight that it’s so low.
It’s easy to recognize the personal element here: writer/director Owen Kline is both pouring his own artistic interests into the movie (many of which are on display in a series he’s curated for Film at Lincoln Center) and seemingly expressing his own anxieties as a creator born into privilege. (He’s the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates.) The film’s musings on the subject are summed up neatly near the beginning, when Robert breaks into his late teacher’s apartment to retrieve some personal effects, gets arrested, and refuses the lawyer his mother hires for him, only to be let off by a sympathetic judge. When he looks at Wallace (Matthew Maher), a clearly mentally unwell client of his employer who is actually struggling, all he sees is an aspirational figure.
With its cast of oddballs and dilapidated urbanity, Funny Pages speaks not just about a past era of cartooning but an earlier of trend of films inspired by it. It’s very much in conversation with ’90s/early ’00s indie-comics-adjacent works like Crumb, or adaptations like Ghost World and American Splendor. The period feels incredibly nebulous — the laptops and cellphone tech on display could suggest that timeframe just as readily as it could the present. At no point does anyone suggest that Robert do what any talented kid these days would and post his art on Tumblr, DeviantArt, Instagram, or the like — maybe because that’s not yet an option, or because he is so enamored of his specific fixations that he’d never consider it. Shot on 16mm by the supremely talented Sean Price Williams, it uses the tactility of celluloid to full effect, making the New Jersey winter acutely felt and displacing the characters from any contemporary vibe, which matches them well to their obsessions with older art.
It’s to the movie’s credit that watching Robert is sometimes like seeing a toddler playing near a downed power line. There’s both the immediate alarm of his car constantly coughing and the ambient anxiety of looking at that $63 check and mentally doing the math on just how he’s going to afford his $350 rent. (Yes, half of a basement bedroom in Trenton is asking for $350 a month.) But any danger he subjects himself to is ultimately illusory — he can retreat to the comfort of his parents’ protection at any time he wishes.
Wallace once worked as a coloring assistant at Image Comics, which in Robert’s mind makes him a potential mentor. In a more conventional film this would kick off a touching redemptive arc for the downtrodden Wallace and a fruitful artistic education for Robert. Instead it’s immediately apparent that Wallace, an abrasive and paranoid raw nerve, sees this kid as an easy mark, demanding $300 for an art lesson. Robert, of course, accepts, leading to a spectacularly uncomfortable collision between Wallace and his parents that spirals in short order. It’s not long after this incident that Funny Pages concludes. This could have been the midpoint of a more in-depth and considered story. On the other hand, that Robert’s foray into the real world ends so quickly also feels true to the misguidedness of his whole enterprise. Even if it could have gone so much further, Funny Pages feels assured in where it is, particularly for a debut feature.
Funny Pages opens in select theaters August 26.
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