There are the pros and cons of bringing a bold new vision to filmmaking. On the plus side, you can give viewers something they haven’t seen before. On the other hand, they may be just as likely to question whether they really want to watch it. in screenwriter-director Owen Klein’s unassuming, insistently unconventional feature debut funny pages, a precocious teenage cartoonist drops out of high school to focus on his obsessive drawing. He moves out of his parents’ super cozy home in Princeton, New Jersey, and finds himself in a very strange roommate situation in a disheveled basement in Trenton. The film’s humor is Pixy Stix-dry; there’s little cuteness or likability in the film as a whole or in Klein’s main character, Robert (Daniel Zolgadri) — and that’s a plus. More Funny pages it is still slightly felt and only vaguely shaped. Well-observed detail is great, but it will only take you so far.
At least Robert isn’t your average grumpy kid. Bright and ambitious, he exudes a deep disdain for the art he considers beneath him: he has zero interest in superhero comics, instead deriving inspiration and joy from 1970s-era underground comics, the outrageously crude , but brilliant 1930s Tijuana Bibles and even 20th-century childhood stuff like Dick Tracy and Scrooge McDuck. His best friend, Miles (Miles Emanuel), a scrawny, shy, acne-ridden kid who exudes a gentle sweetness, shares Robert’s enthusiasm and may also have a bit of a crush on him.
But Robert seems to have outgrown everything around him, including Miles’ friendship. The only adult he respects, his art teacher Mr. Catano (Stephen Adley Guirgis), dies very early in the film, setting this death spiral in classic black comedy. Robert has nothing but contempt for his parents (Josh Pais and Maria Dizia), seeing them as bourgeois and controlling, even though it’s clear that they gave him everything. (In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Robert unwraps a comic book-related box that his mother carefully selected for him as a Christmas present and remarks that it’s useless to him because he has all the originals; the look on her face tells (both how much she loves this child and how much it hurts her that he’s become such a sadness.) The only adult who seems to understand is Cheryl (played by the wonderful Marcia Debonis), a public defender who takes on his case when gets into a bit of a run-in with the law despite the fact that his parents have hired a fancy lawyer.
Kicking everything that’s comfortable and safe and ignoring his parents’ pleas to stay in school, Robert strikes out on his own, working part-time at his favorite comic book store and also doing office work for Cheryl. In her office, he meets Wallace (Matthew Maher), an eccentric who, Robert learns, used to work as an assistant colorist at one of the comic book publishers he respects. Wallace is one of those guys who can barely keep it together, but Robert is smitten with him, building him up to be a role model in ways the poor guy could never live up to. Robert’s understanding of Wallace’s reality is skewed, and he doesn’t have a very good idea himself either. Klein is perceptive enough to show us that if Robert is about to fall, he has no one to blame but himself.
Yet Klein may still be too sympathetic to his hapless, callous protagonist. Zolgadri plays Robert as a naive know-it-all, but beneath his cockiness we can still see gaps of insecurity. It’s easy to feel for him – he clearly has no idea what he’s doing – but he’s starting to wear out his welcome as a character. At one point, Robert’s father, having reached the end of his fuse, adds a few expletives to his assessment of his son’s rebelliousness: “You’re a spoiled boy and that’s all.” It’s the film’s hallelujah moment. Klein also isn’t sure where to put the camera, how to move it, or where to let it stay. At one point, Robert brutally punishes Miles for his acne by lecturing him about the greasy food he insists on eating. Klein’s camera lingers long and close on Miles’ freckled cheek, as if to make sure we get the gist.
It could be argued that Klein seeks to capture ultimate reality. But there’s also something to be said for using discretion and a little courtesy in how you present your characters. Klein has a gift for eccentric comic touches—there’s a great joke involving a tank fish that’s fallen off—and an awareness of how youthful passions can either grow into genius or simply create insufferable gasbags whose heads are full of trivia with questionable value. But how you communicate is just as important as what you say. At one point, Miles asks imploringly, “Is form really more important than soul?” It’s not. But creating a form for your ideas never hurts—it’s like building a little house for the soul to live in. And that goes for movies too.
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