The cartoon is like a stormy rite

Choose your teachers carefully: Without any overt lectures or lesson plans for the audience, here comes the ink and blood-stained Funny Pages, a cheerfully violent coming-of-age comedy from a debut director.

It will be released in theaters and on VOD on August 26. As a bonus, it’s the most un-holiday Christmas movie since Bad Santa, and it’s a whole lot bolder.

The son of Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline, screenwriter and director Owen Kline played the younger of two boys in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. Behind the camera, Cline works in the spirit of three directors in particular, all of whom produced The Funny Pages: Josh and Benny Safdie, whose early stirring work (a portrait of New York in parental mania “Daddy Longlegs,” an odyssey of drug addiction “heaven knows what”) and more recent, stellar projects (“Uncut Gems”) intersects with what Safdie often collaborated with Ronald Bronstein (“Fraunland,” micro-budget miracle of relational panic).

Cline’s film belongs to a pair of intertwined traditions, one of which is the influence mentioned above. Another tradition emerges from the subject matter of the story: the shaky, stark realm of comics and comic artists, an underground divide.

In Princeton, New Jersey, high school student Robert (Daniel Zolgadry) yearns to channel his legitimate drawing talent into a brash, dirty, confessional comic career like R. Crumb or Harvey Pekar of “American Splendor” fame. Robert’s high school art teacher (Stephen Adley Girgis, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright) meets a sudden, final exit shortly after the film begins.

Shocked to suddenly not even have a questionable, ridiculous teacher to call his own, Robert drops out of school. He moves into a surprisingly bleak basement shack in Trenton, where the heat is always high and privacy is not an option.

At the public defender’s office, where Robert works part-time, a particularly hostile person enters his life, a man who we learn caused some kind of incident at the Rite Aid pharmacy. Matthew Maher, the only supporting player who finally gets what he deserves, played to the end with an unpredictable comic moment.

Wallace once worked as an assistant colorist at a comic book publisher, and when Robert finds out, he digs through his old collection and finds examples of his work. Risking more than he realizes, he sets out to force this angry, unhappy man to teach him everything he knows.

Funny Pages does a lot of things right, many of those things are mixing pain and misery with the humor of pain and the deep words of misery. The action eventually shifts to Christmas morning at Robert’s parents’ house. Wallace has been invited by Robert (unbeknownst to his parents) for a pancake breakfast and, more importantly, to give Robert a drawing lesson. Also present on that fateful day: Robert’s old friend Miles (Miles Emanuel), who, like Robert, dreams of publishing his own graphic novels.

Miles is the one who asks the movie’s Big Question out loud before things get really ugly. “Isn’t imagination more important than skill?” he asks Wallace. The answer in the film is “maybe, but…” By design, Robert is a perpetual middling jerk. Wallace, prone to shocking verbal and physical outbursts, can’t connect with the multidirectional passive-aggressive needles in Robert’s house. (The parents are played by Josh Pace, who is pitch-perfect, and the lovely Maria Dizia.) He’s too used to hostility without some of the passivity.

The film is a bit thin; it’s also on the side of a fight about what, in the case of Wallace’s condition, qualifies as something deeper than an appalling anti-social attitude. But Cline, working with the great cinematographer Sean Price Williams, explores a wide range of visual expressiveness in The Funny Pages. It maximizes every nerve-wracking close-up and every new wander through very ordinary places. I laughed a lot, immediately felt guilty for laughing, then cringed (some of the cheaper sight gags involve problematic toe fungus), then braced myself for more. It helps that Cline has real talent. And just in “Happy cringe-masses!” the way

Funny Pages – 3 stars (out of 4)

MPAA Rating: R (for sexually explicit material, natural nudity, profanity and brief scenes of violence)

Duration: 1:26

How to watch: Chicago premiere at the Music Box Theater on August 26; also available on VOD

Michael Phillips is a critic for the Tribune.


Twitter @phillipstribune

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