Pick your mentors carefully: Without any overt lectures or lesson plans for the audience, that’s the ink- and blood-stained takeaway in “Funny Pages,” a bracingly harsh coming-of-age comedy from a debut feature filmmaker.
It opens in theaters and on VOD on Aug. 26. As a bonus, it’s the least festive Christmas movie since “Bad Santa,” and a lot gutsier.
The son of Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline, writer-director Owen Kline played the younger of the two boys in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.” Behind the camera, Kline works in the vein of three filmmakers in particular, all of whom were producers on “Funny Pages”: Josh and Benny Safdie, whose early, exhilarating works (the NYC portrait in parental mania ”Daddy Longlegs,” the addiction odyssey “Heaven Knows What”) and more recent, starrier projects (”Uncut Gems”) intersect with that of the Safdies’ frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein (”Frownland,” a microbudget wonder of relational panic).
Kline’s film belongs to a couple of intertwined traditions, one being the influences cited above. The other tradition derives from its story subject: the twitchy, tetchy realm of comic books and comic book artists, underground division.
In Princeton, New Jersey, high school senior Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) yearns to channel his legitimate drawing talent into a brash, dirty, confessional comics career along the lines of R. Crumb or Harvey Pekar of “American Splendor” fame. Robert’s graphic arts high school teacher (Stephen Adly Guirgis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright) meets a sudden, definitive exit not long after the movie begins.
Shaken, suddenly without even a dubious, inappropriate mentor to call his own, Robert quits school. He moves into an astonishingly grim basement hovel in Trenton, where the heat’s always on high and privacy is not an option.
At the public defender’s office where Robert works part-time, a singularly hostile figure enters his life, a man who, we learn, has provoked some sort of incident at a Rite Aid pharmacy. This man, Wallace, is played to the hilt with unpredictable comic timing by Matthew Maher, a singular supporting player finally getting the showcase he deserves.
Wallace once worked as an assistant to the colorist at a comics publishing house, and when Robert learns this, he digs through his old collection and finds examples of his work. Risking more than he realizes, he sets about making this angry, unhappy man teach him everything he knows.
“Funny Pages” does many things right, many of those things mixing pain and misery with the humor of pain and the punchlines of misery. The action eventually shifts to Christmas morning at Robert’s parents’ house. Wallace has been invited by Robert (his parents don’t know about it) for breakfast pancakes and, more crucially, to give Robert a lesson in draftsmanship. Also in attendance this fateful day: Robert’s longtime sort-of friend Miles (Miles Emanuel), who like Robert dreams of publishing his own graphic novels.
Miles is the one who asks the movie’s Big Question out loud, just before things get truly ugly. “Isn’t imagination more important than craft?” he asks Wallace. The film’s answer is “maybe, but …” By design, Robert is a perpetual medium-level jerk. Wallace, given to shocking outbursts both verbal and physical, can’t relate to the multidirectional passive-aggressive needling in Robert’s house. (The parents are played by the pitch-perfect Josh Pais and the superb Maria Dizzia.) He’s all too used to hostility without the passivity part.
The movie’s a little thin; it’s also on the glib side regarding what, in the case of Wallace’s condition, qualifies as something deeper than a crummy anti-social attitude. But Kline, shooting on film in collaboration with the excellent cinematographer Sean Price Williams, explores a wide range of visual expressivity in “Funny Pages.” He maximizes every nerve-wracking close-up and each new prowl around profoundly ordinary locations. I laughed a lot, immediately felt guilty about laughing, then winced (some of the cheaper sight gags include problematic toe fungus), then braced for more. It helps that Kline has real talent. And just in a “Merry Cringemas!” way.
“Funny Pages” — 3 stars (out of 4)
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MPAA rating: R (for crude sexual material, graphic nudity, strong language and brief violent images)
Running time: 1:26
How to watch: Premieres in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre Aug. 26; also available VOD
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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