Aspiring comic artist Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) has just graduated from high school with long-suffering friend Miles (Miles Emanuel). After witnessing the death of his esteemed, unconventional art teacher, Robert leaves home, gets a job and sets out to make his name as an artist in this idiosyncratic, unsettling and very funny coming-of-age story.
Less a narrative and more a series of connected, increasingly bizarre incidents, Funny Pages is like an anti-bildungsroman: its protagonist beginning his journey driven and motivated before ending directionless and lost. In that sense, it’s not a bad depiction of the transition from the self-actualisation that late-adolescence assuredly promises to the resigned bafflement that true adulthood usually brings.
Robert is brattish, arrogant and wildly out of his depth as he courts the company of a parade of deeply questionable adults; he exists in a broadly realistic world but the surreal characters he encounters, from sweaty basement landlord Barry (Michael Townsend Wright) to unhinged, violent comics colourist Wallace (a scene-stealing Michael Maher) have leapt straight from the dark comics of his imagination. If the road to adulthood leads here, maybe it would be best to just turn around and go home.
Knowing little about this feature directorial debut by former child actor Owen Kline, my first impression of the film was that it was surely a period piece, meticulously reproducing the burned-out drabness of late-nineties Americana. Kline himself has spoken about wanting to get away from the hyper-saturated neon aesthetics of contemporary indie cinema to something “gross and fluorescent”. Robert’s sub-cultural pretentiousness and penchant for befriending peculiar older men speaks to Thora Birch’s epochal turn in Ghost World, while the 16mm cinematography and a sound mix that emphasises Kline’s awkward dialogue produces an unsettling aesthetic mix akin to early 1990s Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith.
That unsettling feeling of being out of time persists throughout Funny Pages: set in the 2020s and from a director in his early thirties, Funny Pages is a Gen-Xer movie made by a millennial. In that sense, Kline perfectly captures the out-of-jointness of our age, defined by a generation caught by social and economic decline in a state of permanent instability; just as Robert looks back to the mythical underground comics that seem ‘ancient’ to his eighteen-year old eyes, so too does Funny Pages look to the anaesthetised ennui of Gen X to understand its generation’s own existential crisis.