The young director Owen Kline packs worlds of cringe into “Funny Pages” — shame, disgust, embarrassment, sweaty sexual panic, acres of pustules — it’s all here in this terrific, tonally flawless feature debut. Scabrous, painful and true, it tracks a high school senior who, in his ambitions to be a comic-book artist of the highest, purest order, steamrollers over nearly everyone in his life. No one is spared in this portrait of a young artist as a pain in the butt.
It’s startling how good the film is, partly because independent American cinema is clogged with bland coming-of-age fictions about nice kids. There’s nothing obviously nice about Robert — a fantastic Daniel Zolghadri — a churlish 17-year-old whose talent is engaged in an escalating war of dominance with his narcissism. Or at least his bad attitude: Robert talks big (and mean), but is desperate for validation, one problem being that he seems to despise almost everyone.
The economic if event-filled story fits the coming-of-age template in its broadest, less romantic outlines. In classic striver mode, Robert yearns to become what he isn’t yet, in this case a great cartoonist in the vein of Robert Crumb and his underground comix brethren. Our Robert hopes to attend art school, an ambition that doesn’t sit well with his mentor and teacher, the shambolic Mr. Katano (an indelible Stephen Adly Guirgis). Lavishly praising Robert — and dividing his cartoons as either Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant great — Katano urges him to submit his work straight to Mad Magazine.
“Funny Pages” announces its parameters in its inaugural scene, which finds teacher and student yammering in Katano’s office as Robert eagerly flips through some infamous, old-time dirty comics known as Tijuana Bibles. Published first in the 1930s and small enough to hide in your pocket, these comics were explicit parodies of characters like Popeye (he is what he is, but more so) and Mickey and Minnie Mouse, as well as Hollywood stars. Kline fills the frame with panels from one Bible (a parody of “Henry,” a long-forgotten comic-strip) so that the images loom with humorous, unambiguously smutty absurdity.
The opener establishes the claustrophobic milieu as well as the open, visceral intimacy between Robert and Katano, admiration radiating off the student’s face as the teacher blows cigarette smoke out the window. It also puts the viewer on notice, announcing the movie’s unflinching embrace of the impolite and the incorrect. Among the film’s virtues is that it’s exhilaratingly free of the do-gooder, aspirational current that runs through so many ostensibly independent features (unless you too aspire to Crumb-like artistry), and that effectively repackage the same Sunday school moralism the old-studio movies did.
Caught between childhood and adulthood, Robert struggles, though he often just squirms. He argues with his exasperated parents (Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais), insults other teachers and sneers at Marvel superheroes. (Kline knows his target audience.) Robert’s rebellious gestures are puny and transparent. He reveres Katano but continually hurls brickbats at his closest friend, the unfailingly loyal Miles (the newcomer Miles Emanuel), another comic-book artist. Yet while Robert can be cruel, especially to Miles, Kline never is. He’s deeply fond of all his characters, even the most abject, which is an ethos in itself.
Shortly after “Funny Pages” begins, Robert’s life is upturned by a traumatic loss that sends him quietly spiraling and sets the story on its way. Things happen quickly, and before long he’s arrested, drops out of school and moves out of his family’s house. These milestones give the narrative rough shape, but are less the point than Robert’s textured, buzzingly alive, if anxious and pointedly cloistered male world. Both he and Kline have touchstones and influences, and each is working within established frames — the comic-book panel, the movie screen — while also pushing against limits, finding their voices, making their marks.
Robert has a ways to go before he catches up to Kline, whose filmmaking here is seamless and confident: He knows how to shoot, and how to stage a scene (an almost lost skill). “Funny Pages” was shot in super 16 millimeter film, which gives the movie a gritty texture that fits the material and, at times, evokes some classics of 1970s cinema. (The directors of photography are Hunter Zimny and Sean Williams Price; the production designers are Audrey Turner and Madeline Sadowski.) More than once, I flashed on Elaine May’s “A New Leaf” with its sui generis characters, off-the-beat comic rhythms and unforgettable faces.
The faces in “Funny Pages” are critical to the film’s gestalt, its philosophy and aesthetic, and offer an astonishment of humanity in all its sweaty, wrinkly, frizzy, rheumy, comb-over, tender glory. These are the people whom Robert is drawn to and draws, the people he takes inspiration from and who feed his head and hungry soul. They’re fodder for his art (and would make Instagram influencers shriek), but as familiar as the faces most of us see in the mirror. In conventional terms, and certainly when it comes to the norms of packaged industrial entertainment, they’re imperfect just because they are real, which makes them shocking.
In time, Robert takes a perilous turn, most floridly when he meets Wallace (an excellent, fearless Matthew Maher), who becomes a dubious and punishing new mentor. There are fights, a car crash, some domestic drama, but mostly there is Robert in his own wonderland, a dank, clammy, sometimes sordid place of delight, baseness and naked feeling, one that’s far from the one inhabited by, say, the status-conscious music dudes in the film “High Fidelity.” There’s nothing remotely cool about Robert or, really, “Funny Pages.” That’s because cool is entirely beside the point. What matters is a sensibility, a worldview — what matters is art.
Rated R for nudity and raw language. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.