In almost—almost—every way, writer-director Owen Kline’s new film Funny Pages is an absolute gem of a coming-of-age tale, a teen boy’s first venture toward independence and adulthood, set in and around the periphery of comic artistry and publishing. Its script is nuanced and earnest, its performances, especially from lead Daniel Zolghadri, impeccable, and its cinematography realistically grungy. The story it tells is one cinema rarely takes time to examine, its depiction of a teenaged male on the precipice of adulthood keen with insight.
And yet, for all its strengths, its comic foibles and thoughtful insights, the film’s narrative loses its momentum as it approaches its third act. And that’s a shame, as for the most part Funny Pages is as touching and telling a film as I’d seen all year.
Zolghadri (Eighth Grade) plays Robert, a high school senior employed at a local comic store in Princeton, New Jersey. Openly contemptuous of the middle-class life his parents (Josh Pais, Maria Dizzia) have led and the college life they have planned for him, he rebels with his artistry. Obsessed by the bawdy, graphic “funny pages” of eras past, Robert apprentices under the tutelage of Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), an avuncular art instructor who teaches the young boy to draw anatomy—by exposing his own.
But when Robert is left, suddenly, to practice his craft without Mr. Katano’s instruction, he makes a series of rash choices. To his parents’ chagrin, he drops out of school, buys a car nicknamed “La Cucaracha, ” and rents a basement apartment in nearby Trenton to practice his craft. His landlord Barry (Michael Townsend Wright) and new roommate Steven (Cleveland Thomas Jr) live in a squalor so abject you can smell its funk and touch its sweat: they spend their days with wine and old movies, and Robert barely notices the multiple warning signs that maybe, just maybe, this isn’t the ideal place to hone his craft.
Even so, Robert manages to land a job, inputting data for a public defender (Marcia DeBonis), where he meets Wallace (Matthew Maher), an outburst-prone fifty-something who used to work in comics. Desperate for mentorship in Mr. Katano’s absence, Robert tries vainly to enlist Wallace as a friend and advisor even as the older man wants nothing to do with the teenager or his needs. The more Robert and his comrade-in-artistry Miles (Miles Emanuel) inquire about Wallace’s career, the worse things get for both of them.
For its first two thirds or so, Funny Pages is absolutely compelling. Zolghadri is an excellent actor whose portrayal of Robert is genuine and measured. Robert is introverted and talented but socially inept, and Zolghadri’s performance reveals both a callow rejection of his parents’ values and an unrecognized need for a male role model—even where no such man exists. Zolghadri’s low-key affect and calm demeanor belie the character’s harebrained decision-making, and even when you feel—and you will feel—extreme frustration with Robert’s choices, you’ll still want him to succeed.
The supporting cast is equally excellent. DeBonis, Wright, Thomas, and Giurgis make for something of a rogue’s gallery of offbeat adults who may or may not have Robert’s best interests at heart. Each presents their character as a human being with quirks and limitations. Vets Ron Rifkin and Louise Lasser make small cameos. Pais and Dizzia convince as Robert’s well-intended yet perfectly inept parents. As best buddy Miles, who presses Robert on questions of artistic integrity, Miles Emanuel shines in a small role. Props to casting director Jennifer Vendritti for expert work assembling a pitch-perfect crew of outcasts.
And even though Funny Pages works on an apparently modest budget, its cinematography, editing, and music are first-rate. Directors of Photography Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny aim for a grungy, ’70s-style realism by using rough-grain color stock and 16mm cameras, preferring to let the camera linger on the contrasts between the youthful and aged faces of its cast. (A few shots, like Robert’s slow pace through a pharmacy or the mostly-still closing shot, will stick with viewers long after the credits have finished rolling.) Sean O’Hagan’s score is simple and minimalistic but perfectly suited to the film’s oddball action. And best, the artistry created for the film (think R. Crumb meets Ralph Bakshi) by Jonny Ryan, Rick Altergott, Peter Begge and others makes for a weirdly offbeat, subversive, and, yes, mildly pornographic design.
It may seem almost churlish, then, in a film so expertly cast, shot, and crafted, to speak of its flaws. Maher’s character, Wallace, is well-played by the decorated stage, screen, and television veteran. But he’s both the least interesting character in the film and the one—aside from Zolghadri’s Robert—to whom it devotes the most time. The harder and harder Robert tries to enlist Maher’s Wallace as a friend and mentor, the more and more apparent it becomes that Wallace’s quirks—his overt hostility and his quick temper—constitute the entirety of his character. No fault of Maher’s, but Wallace, a man who for a time held a small job in the periphery of the comics industry and now spends his time accosting nearly anyone who interacts with him, simply doesn’t have enough depth to engage the narrative’s interest.
In a way, that may be part of Funny Pages‘ point: that Wallace is no candidate for a young man’s mentorship, no sage under whom he can or should apprentice. But even if so, it’s a point laboriously, painfully made, at the audience’s and at other characters’ expense. Were it not for this misstep and the final act’s absurdly violent tumult, Funny Pages might have found itself heralded as a great American coming-of-age film. Instead, it risks being as offbeat and obscure as the curious comic ‘zines Robert collects and aspires to draw, a little footnote where artists toil and then fade into obscurity just like Wallace and the real-life tortured hand-to-mouth genre comics artist Wally (Wallace) Wood on whom he is loosely based.
Even despite its missteps, though, Funny Pages bodes well for the careers of its writer-director Kline and its star Zolghadis. Kline, the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, who got his start acting and crewing on brothers Josh and Bennie Safdie‘s shorts. Later he was cast in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. Kline demonstrates a significant talent for guiding and working with his actors, and Funny Pages is a film with a distinct, recognizable, and highly effective style, a spiritual cousin to Ghost World and American Splendor and far, far more profound a film than the cringe comedy for which some are certain to mistake it. Zolghadis, meanwhile, seems poised for a breakout with a role that will certainly bring him considerable acclaim.
At Cannes, Funny Pages debuted to an extended standing ovation. It’s a film that has, like its protagonist (and perhaps like its writer-director), great potential, whether or not it’s ultimately realized. Executive produced by the Safdie Brothers with Sebastian Bear-McClard, Ronald Bronstein, Oscar Boyson, and David Duque-Estrada, Funny Pages is distributed by A24 and debuts in theaters August 26, 2022.