Funny Pages review

Funny Pages is a stellar cringe comedy about youthful ambition and outsider comics

“Produced by none other than the Safdie brothers (with many alums from Good Time and Uncut Gems in supporting or bit parts), the film feels layered with grit and grease that no amount of scrubbing will release.”

In a dirty, grimy, windowless classroom, Robert draws. After hours with his beloved art teacher, the two bond over their shared love for outsider comics. Robert wants to be great, and his teacher pushes him to the limit, exploding with half-praise and half-insults. Spontaneously, the teacher comments that Robert’s figure drawings need work and art school won’t subject him to the atypical and grotesque bodies that populate the world of their favourite artists. With some vague consent, the teacher disrobes and stands on his desk. Robert begins to draw until he’s interrupted by a phone call — he’s late. The moment that was brimming with youthful enthusiasm and inspiration turns awkward. Did the teacher cross a line?

This night changes the direction of Robert’s life. He drops out of school, is arrested for breaking and entering, and moves out of his family’s comfortable upper-middle-class home. He’s set his mind on becoming a great comic book artist and is ready to sacrifice everything to meet his goal.

Funny Pages is director Owen Kline’s feature debut, a roaring, cringy, singular vision of young ambition. Rather than a bohemian, romantic depiction of artistic sacrifice, the film carefully balances poking fun at youthful dreams while also upholding the single-minded focus of young adulthood in a truthful but ultimately fantastic way. Produced by none other than the Safdie brothers (with many alums from Good Time, Uncut Gems and beyond in supporting or bit parts), the film feels layered with grit and grease that no amount of scrubbing will release. 

In terms of scale, Funny Pages remains “small.” There’s no real ‘Aha!’ moment where Robert might get that big break that will make or break his career. Instead, we focus on a character searching for both voice and experience — what kind of stories will he tell? What kind of artist will he be? Daniel Zolghadri, in the lead role, is adept at playing a young person in search of self as we watch him try on different personas and test how far he’s willing to push the boundaries of his comfort zone. He’s both a dumb, sheltered kid and a prodigious talent willing to endure sweat and tears to achieve his dreams. 

Robert’s independence remains adolescent. He might get a real job and an apartment, but he remains cushioned by naivety and the privileges of his parents. He soon meets an artist on a comic he admires and begins goading him into teaching him the ropes. The artist is aloof and prone to temper tantrums. He’s embroiled in a legal case with a pharmacist after a physical altercation. He’s strange and unfriendly, and Robert desperately wants his approval. 

The film’s sense of atmosphere elevates it. Beyond the layers of grime and the 16mm film stock crackle it’s shot on, the production design is beautifully grotesque. Courtroom offices overflow with decades of papers, public bathrooms are filled with broken tiles and unspeakable fluids, and dark basement spaces seem to sweat with mould and uncared-for plumbing. The sounds, too! A man washes at a sink, and the aggressive repetitiveness of his obsessive motion sounds like a man pleasuring himself. It’s aggressively in your face yet perfectly in tune with the underground ambitions of its main character, who sees possibility and inspiration in the downtrodden and forgotten. 

Funny Pages won’t charm all audiences, but if you’re a fan of awkward humour and the work of the Safdie brothers, there’s a good chance you’ll get a lot out of this film. Yet, even beyond those markers of taste, the film stands alone as a rare portrait of nascent talent and ambition. It captures the spark of being young and finding your passion in all its ugly, resplendent glory. ■

Funny Pages, directed by Owen Kline, produced by the Safdie brothers

Funny Pages opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Aug. 26.

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