“Funny Pages,” a new, chaotic rite-of-passage movie now in theatres and on VOD, seems to have taken the advice of one its characters to heart. Early on, an art teacher in urges his student Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) to “always subvert.” Director Owen Kline, in his quirky directorial debut, challenges the notion of a traditional coming-of-age tale in this gritty celebration of life’s outsiders.
When we first meet Robert, he is being mentored by Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), an encouraging teacher who heaps praise on the teenager’s drawings. “Michael Jordon!” he shouts when he sees a drawing he really likes. When Katano suddenly dies, Robert is left adrift, caught between his suburban parents (Josh Pais and Maria Dizzia), who want him to go to college, and his ambition to create “Mad Magazine” level artistry.
One quick brush-with-the-law later Robert quits school, and subverts his life by renting a space in a rundown rooming house, already occupied by creepy roommates Barry (Michael Townsend Wright) and Steven (Cleveland Thomas Jr.). He’s hoping some of the unusual living situation will provide him with the edge he needs to create great art.
While working as an assistant for Legal Aid attorney, Cheryl (Marcia DeBonis, Robert meets Wallace (Matthew Maher), a techy criminal who once worked as a “color separator” at Image Comics. Despite Wallace’s crusty exterior and occasionally violent outbursts, Robert is drawn to his talent and tries to recruit him as his new mentor.
Most coming-of-age stories rely on a certain amount of uplift to provide an inspirational punch to the storytelling. Not “Funny Pages.” This is the kind of movie that offers unlikable characters with no happily-ever-afters. It lives in the fringes of society, and the abrasiveness of the story’s denizens may turn off some viewers, but the richness of the performances is rewarding, no matter how edgy.
The movie’s gritty, grainy look matches its subject matter. There is nothing slick about “Funny Pages.” Like the comic books it reveres, the movie is outsider art unconcerned with the niceties of coming-of-age conventions. It feels destined to become a cult film, much like the movies that movies—“Crumb,” “Ghost World”—and people—Joe Franklin, Peter Bagge—that serve as its inspiration.