A Portrait of the Artist as a (Selfish) Young Man
The trajectory for Robert, a disaffected, driven, and often unlikeable 18-year-old, is not so much the standard coming-of-age arc as a giant leap from childhood into adulthood. The high-school senior—though when we meet him he’s about to drop out, precipitously—is a bevy of contractions: thoughtful and uncaring, naïve and shockingly mature, nasty and nice, self-centered and engaging. Daniel Zolghadri, who is rarely off-screen, makes this protagonist not only believable, but fascinating.
Robert is obsessive in his passion for drawing comics, of the underground genre. And he’s good at it. According to his teacher, one of the few people he relates to, he’s on track to be the Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant of the comics world. To pursue this passion and make his giant leap, Robert abruptly moves out of the middle-class home in Princeton, New Jersey, that he shares with his controlling, frustrated parents, and into an overheated basement in Trenton that he shares with two—let’s call them what they are—weirdos (the startling Michael Townsend Wright and Cleveland Thomas Jr.). Using Dante as our guide, Robert’s move looks like it’s from Purgatory to Hell, to an under-class nightmare, but it’s more like Hell to Heaven for the teenager, who finally has shed the parental and school-life chains for what seems to him total freedom and a nurturing environment for his alternative sensibility, even as it means sweating profusely in a shared, noisy, dark room underground.
The parents are caricatures (although also frighteningly realistic in their desires for their child’s success), as are most of the strange misfits—there are more than just the two in the basement. Thirty-year-old writer and director Owen Kline, in his debut feature film, moves beyond farce when Robert meets the disturbed, talented comic “assistant colorist” Wallace. Played to menacing perfection by veteran character actor Matthew Maher (most notably seen in TV series, such as 2018’s “Mozart in the Jungle”), Wallace is at once threatening and pathetic, presenting a challenge to Robert to relate to someone who is unpredictable and yet who offers the young artist something he craves.
Robert’s self-absorption, and inability to understand the eccentricities of those around him (a version of how his parents treat him), comes to a head with his attempts to get Wallace to help him with his drawing technique. His monomaniacal, egotistical pursuit of his career is also on display in the way he cruelly treats his high school friend, Miles (Miles Emanuel), critiquing Miles’s comics with unleavened meanness and ruthlessly commenting on Miles’s acne. Although the friend is not the volatile adult that Wallace is, Robert’s lack of empathy, his inability to see beyond his own desires, will prove costly.
In many ways, the weird folks Robert encounters in his Trenton life (including the wired pharmacy customer—“Get me a Percocet!”—played by Louise Lasser, memorable in the title role in 1970s TV’s “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”) are comic characters. It’s as if when he leaves Princeton and enters Trenton, Robert inhabits his comic world. Life imitates art. It’s those idiosyncratic “characters” who supply him with a world he can draw, as his high school teacher (Stephen Adly Guirgis) teaches him when he strips and poses nude, in all his layers of belly fat, nipple hair and small penis, encouraging Robert to draw what he wants and feels, not what school admissions officers demand to see in a portfolio.
Director Kline (lauded as a budding actor in 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale”) laces “Funny Pages” with serious discussions. But the topic of “what is art” is dealt with fleetingly, in a fast and literally furious exchange of words between Miles and Wallace about whether art is a matter of “craft” or “soul.” Also part of the palette of the film, and yet not central, is the subversive nature of underground comics, grounded in blatant sexuality. Unconventional sexuality is referenced in several pages of banned comics and in plot points that humorously mark homosexuality as threatening. But Robert is moved by none of this emotionally or erotically; he is laser-focused on his drawing.
Though completely different from “Eighth Grade” (no coming-of-age sex, no high school cliques or bullies—indeed, almost no high school at all) and set four years later in the life of an adolescent, “Funny Pages” may be the best expression since Bo Burnham’s 2018 hit (in which Zolghadri had a small role) of young adult angst, in this case centered on the blind passion that can accompany the pursuit of a calling. Robert may be the most compelling teen character in film since Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird (“Lady Bird” 2017).
To Kline’s credit, he does not try to resolve Robert’s ultimate confusion over his Trenton world. It’s enough that he has creatively delved into a young adult’s zeal for life in a small, less-than-90 minute film that is highly entertaining, totally unpredictable, and invariably engrossing—from beginning to end.
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)
Director: Owen Kline
Starring: Daniel Zolghadri, Matthew Maher, Miles Emanuel, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Michael Townsend Wright, Cleveland Thomas Jr., Louise Lasser
Country: United States
Runtime: 86 minutes
Other Awards: One nomination to date, for Cannes’s Golden Camera (Best First Feature) award.
Funny Pages ★★★1/2
Availability: Widely available on streaming and TV services, including AppleTV, Amazon Prime, DirectTV; see JustWatch here for full availability.
Lead image: Daniel Zolghadri is fascinating as the young comic artist Robert.