“Funny Pages” Examined: The Conventional Rebellion of a Teenage Prodigy

Owen Kline’s feature debut, “Funny Pages,” is a film of ideas, or rather one idea, with an ostensible subject. Like many of these films, its first action shot and character background are thinned out to make the illustration of its thesis all the more clear. The film is a serious comedy centered on a high school student named Robert Bleichner (Daniel Zolghadri), a gifted artist and comic book enthusiast who, at seventeen, decides to drop out to pursue his goal of becoming a graphic novelist. . Or rather, he is persuaded by a teacher, Connor Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), to postpone college and begin his career immediately. “Funny Pages” (which opens Friday in theaters and on video-on-demand) depicts the fragile bond of mentorship, the coming-of-age struggle to define oneself, and the conflicts between inspiration and technique, art and craft. He does this with an urgency that goes beyond his thin specificities, and he tends towards an aesthetic, a mode of artistic creation, which Kline himself does not reach, but which he at least has the critical sense of. ‘admire.

Mentoring is at the forefront of the film, in an exuberant but gruesome scene of predation. Robert is in Mr. Katano’s office at school; Katano, a loud and nagging middle-aged man, extolls Robert’s scatological, even racist cartoons, urging him to “always reverse!” Katano considers Robert a Michael Jordan and a Kobe Bryant of comic book art; he encourages Robert to submit his work for publication; he urges Robert to put together a portfolio; he advises Robert to show his ability to draw life – and he strips naked (except for his socks and shoes) in front of Robert and invites the student to draw him. From the start, it’s clear that the teacher that Robert and his best friend – another aspiring cartoonist named Miles, played by Miles Emanuel – revere is a manipulator, a seducer, a menace. But, after Katano’s sudden death, his influence on Robert rises to cult status, and the young man decides to follow the professor’s suggestion.

Robert, who lives with his parents (Josh Pais and Maria Dizzia) and grandfather (Ron Rifkin) in upper-middle-class suburban comfort in Princeton, New Jersey, drops out of high school, acquires a dented car from his boss at the local comic book store, moves to a dark illegal sublet room in Trenton, gets a job and, by a strange coincidence, finds another mentor – a troubled middle-aged man named Wallace Schearer (Matthew Maher) , a former commercial artist at an esteemed comic book publisher, who now lives in appalling isolation and despair, and whom Robert avails for art lessons. Avoiding spoilers doesn’t sit well: Wallace is knowledgeable and knowledgeable, but he’s also narrow-minded, overbearing, paranoid, and violent. When the relationship goes from bad to worse, Robert gleans a lesson on the long road to self-discovery and artistic achievement through gradual experience, personal relationships and patient nurturing – he learns that his race to the unconventional is as conventional a step as there is, that his attraction to strangers is as much prejudice as anything they endure.

Disciple tales deliver “Funny Pages”: Katano dominates the beginning of the film and Wallace dominates the second half, and more or less everything in between exists to set up the points Kline makes on the subject. Yet Kline stitches together the illustrative plot as a gleefully complex, Rube Goldberg-esque succession of interconnected accidents and bizarre coincidences, beginning with the earnest fantasy of Robert’s misguided break-in to the recently deceased Katano’s office. Robert is arrested, and his independent-minded resolution to his legal troubles — rejecting his father’s dear corporate lawyer friend, he chooses a public defender named Cheryl Quartermaine (Marcia DeBonis) to represent him — sparks his decision to quit. home and live independently. Then, in Trenton, he asks Cheryl for work, she hires him, and it’s through his surprisingly good work with her (summarizing his client talks) that he meets Wallace. The film is a comedy, filled with ancient absurdities, exaggerated personalities, actor caricatures, predicaments, jerky incongruities and offbeat dialogue – but it also relies on its recognizable genre for dramatic shortcuts, turning the story into a series of sketches and settings that are less about character or experience and more about making a point.

Cheryl is smart, dedicated, and capable, and she teaches Robert valuable lessons about life and work, but she also can’t help but laugh at Robert calling him “cute” and “really delicious.” The owner of Robert’s sub-sublet in Trenton is a late middle-aged man named Barry (Michael Townsend Wright) who has a messy comb and a passive-aggressive manner; he keeps his cluttered warren, which features a green aquarium in which the fish are dead, heated to tropical excesses, and he puts Robert in a room with an unexpected roommate (Cleveland Thomas, Jr.). Barry is something of a reclusive connoisseur of defunct pop culture and comic book lore, and he has copious, if unaffected, talk on these topics, but there’s an odd air of delicate sexuality that seems s infiltrate through the closed doors of the hermetic abode.

Wallace, who is in legal trouble, pushes Robert into a reckless revenge plot at a drug store where Wallace’s troubles began. (There, Robert meets a desperate disabled woman—played by Louise Lasser—who harasses him for a Percocet.) Kline conspicuously avoids romanticizing the poverty and desperation of the Trenton misfits and eccentrics who populate the film, but, instead, he falls into the opposite extreme: he transforms them into restless grotesques and looks at them with the pity of a stranger; it does not make room for anyone in a difficult situation who has a clear view of their difficulties. There’s an unfortunate trope – or rather a cliché – of well-meaning sympathy cinema that casts the poor and working people into an eerie silence and keeps them from talking about their lives, their neighborhoods, and the world at large. “Funny Pages” offers the negative image of this trope, giving Robert’s new acquaintances an often ample discourse that comes across as borderline deranged, as an emblem of disruption and a marker of potential threat.

As for the lair of Robert’s peers, the 100% masculine greenhouse of the comic book store where he worked before going out on his own, it is a conclave of fanatical connoisseurs whose salty opinions and definitive judgments are exempt from the high horse of the obsession and darkness. , pride and resentment – ​​and this set is also a cliché parody that pins its sophomore and eternally adolescent sidekicks to the corkboard with nothing like a personality or a thought. Robert himself is as stern and narrowly judgmental as his fellow fans, building a cult of craftsmanship and an obsession with technique that resembles a teenage movie buff’s fascination with precisionists such as Kubrick or Spielberg, as well as a coarse and inexperienced eroticism. Yet Robert remains a cipher, set only reactively as he pushes his parents away. The film’s climax comes early, in a quiet tirade at a dinner party, in which Robert becomes angry with his father for providing him with a high-powered lawyer friend to represent him. The brief sequence hints at a depth of character, a framework of underlying principle and substance, that the rest of the film lacks.

Robert’s friend Miles, less judgmental and more lazy (with the wild hair to show it), has an altogether more relaxed and open-minded view of comic book art – and he shows skepticism of Robert’s remora-like conduct. bond with a mentor. Miles is something akin to the conscience of the film: a diffusely drawn but highly insightful character, the shadowy negative image of Robert’s adored submission to adult figures inflated with artistic authority and rigorous discipline – those who, despite all that he clings to, retain all the more in need and doubt. Indeed, “Funny Pages”, despite its nods to the comic book classic “Ghost World” and the nerd dialectic “High Fidelity”, is above all an anti-“Whiplash”, a repudiation of the value of the young midshipman’s desperate dependence on the lessons and endorsement of a technically skilled but emotionally stunted veteran.

The film’s unequivocal plea for unfettered artistic expression, for the free endeavors and enthusiasms of youth, unfortunately does not extend to the on-screen art of Kline itself. The film is crisp and crisp in its performance, neat in its drama, heartbreaking and functional in its writing, modeled film school in its editing and, most surprisingly, simple and uninflected in its cinematography. There are two credited cinematographers, Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny. Williams is one of the most original cinematographers of the century, as seen in films as pivotal as Ronald Bronstein’s ‘Frownland’, Josh and Benny Safdie’s ‘Heaven Knows What’ and ‘Good Time’, and the six feature films by Alex Ross Perry; Zimny ​​is a relative newcomer. (Bronstein and the Safdies are among the producers of “Funny Pages.”) In any case, the images have little distinction, certainly none of the high-energy virtuosity that characterizes Williams’ vital work. Whatever the sense of obsession that drives Robert’s art and whatever the emotional freedom that inspires that of Miles, neither is reflected in the cinematic aesthetic of “Funny Pages”; the film is only a conventional vessel for Kline’s fiery ideas, which cross the cinema without leaving a trace.♦