Funny Pages Review: Bizarre Coming Of Age Story Steeped In Impressive Specificity But Not Much Else

You can tell a lot about a person by their influences. Whether they're subtle and obvious or totally overt, the way a filmmaker imitates and sometimes steals directly from their biggest influences says a lot about the kind of movie you might end up watching. From the first few minutes of Owen Kline's "Funny Pages," I could tell producers Josh and Benny Safdie were going to be major influences on the filmmaker's style and his tone. Turns out that throughline is consistent to the very end of the picture — and while Kline's version of things is certainly a bit more grimy and gritty in a different way, it still encompasses a similar kind of spatial awareness that looms large in the Safdies' work alongside a command of setting and character. Considering the filmmakers produced this film, it shouldn't come as much surprise that their influence on Kline and his work is palpable.

"Funny Pages" follows a young kid named Robert (Daniel Zolghadri), a very gifted cartoonist struggling with the loss of his most beloved teacher who, of course, believed in him more than anyone. In the aftermath, he decides to drop out of high school and leave the comforts of his family home to make it on his own, shacking up in a less than savory basement apartment with adult roommates. In the midst of finding a job and attempting to become a tried and true adult, he meets Wallace ("Our Flag Means Death" star Matthew Maher), a snarky convict who has a past in the professional comic world. Their similarities collide head-on in a dark coming-of-age parable where both parties need to do a bit of growing up.

Breathing life into your setting

The Safdie Brothers are known for their attachment to using New York City as a palpable character in their work. The city has a living, breathing heartbeat when reshaped in their design, and we truly see their version of the well-known place. Think their first feature "Daddy Long Legs." The specificity of their NYC is what makes it interesting to watch, and half of why we care about the plot in the first place. 

Kline takes a page from their book with "Funny Pages," with a similarly masterful command of setting and space in the weird little world he built for this movie. It takes place in Princeton, New Jersey — an area ripe with its own kind of raw and unrefined character — but Kline makes it his own with unsettling ease. His weird town filled with perpetually sweaty basement dwellers, eccentric female lawyers, and a competitive comics scene consisting of its own peanut gallery of ragtag misfits sets the scene for the manic tone of the film and keeps the audience's expectations hovering within the bizarre for the rest of the picture.

The strange yet persistent bond

"Funny Pages" hinges on two performances and how those characters repel and attract one another like magnets. Robert and Wallace are some of the most unlikely of friends, and their connection blooms and wanes mainly through Zolghadri and Maher's chemistry as actors. They bounce off each other in a manic and sharp way in scenes, but Zolghadri's reverence for Maher's Wallace keeps its tender shape throughout. 

It is Robert's devotion to getting to know Wallace that keeps Maher's character coming back and entertaining the kid's insistence in bringing up his past, despite his own qualms with reflecting on that part of his life. Robert doesn't quite understand the depth of shame and failure, because he has yet to experience it in the way Wallace has — and it feels like something about his freshness keeps Wallace from getting any closer than arm's length. Zolghadri and Maher both play their parts in this dynamic really well. It's believable and at times, dementedly heartbreaking when these two miss the mark on a connection. It's certainly one of the better reasons to catch this movie.

An unforgettable opener

Kline certainly has a grasp on character, and that's apparently from the very first scene of the film. In juxtaposition to some of the rest of the film, which isn't exactly the most memorable, this introduction to Kline's characters — and in their absurdity, the rules of the world he has created — is a film moment you won't soon forget. As Robert and his closest supporter, one of his teachers, have a frank conversation about the teen's potential as an artist, the educator decides to strip naked so Robert can draw him in the style of some crude cartoons that he is influenced by. It's such a brash and self-assured moment, and to start on that note definitely says a lot about the kind of story you want to tell. 

Kline is firm in his world-building, starting with this opener — we expect the absurd, disgusting, and demented from then on out when presented with this kind of opening sequence. It might be the best scene in the entire film, which isn't really the thing you want to hear about an hour-and-a-half-long thematic journey, but it will absolutely be the thing you remember best and in the fondest light about the movie after it's over.

"Funny Pages" isn't a movie that's going to change your life, or make you appreciate having been a kid. In fact, its best offering is not its sentimentality but its strangeness, which is so singular and unique that its vision should be celebrated on that merit alone. But at the end of the day, the movie does a few things quite well, namely two of the project's most crucial elements: characters, setting, and a few memorable performances. Movies don't succeed without those elements in the bag, so ultimately, the semi-forgettable Owen Kline debut had a few things going for it.

/Film Rating: 5.5 out of 10