While watching Owen Kline’s feature debut, I noticed how the oddball yet authentic characters reminded me of the Safdie Brothers’ films, no surprise the siblings are credited as producers of the dark comedy. Daniel Zolghadri (“Eighth Grade”) plays Robert, a talented teenage cartoonist who hopes to follow in the footsteps of his idols Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar. He drops out of high school, moves out of his parent’s upper-middle-class home, and into the trenches of New Jersey’s seedy underbelly for inspiration as an underground artist. It’s bold, brash, and bawdy. While I found “Funny Pages” highly entertaining, it’s not for everyone especially the easily offended.

Shot on 16mm film, the grainy stock enhancing the film’s repulsive tone, “Funny Pages” recalls the low budget, dark comedy characteristics of John Waters, although we can all be thankful that Kline chose not to follow Waters’ lead by including Smell-O-Vision scratch-and-sniff cards for the audience. The Safdie Brothers’ influence is present as Kline’s three-dimensional East Coast characters jump off the screen, and there are shades of Todd Solondz in the mix. When it comes to strong quirky characters, Kline — the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates — can also count Noah Baumbach as an influence, after playing Frank, the younger brother in Baumbach’s 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale.”

If you were lucky enough to have a teacher as a mentor in high school, then you can relate to high school student Robert (Zolghadri). The budding cartoonist’s art teacher Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis) has nothing but praise for his student, “You’re already at a professional level of drawing” he exclaims and then suggests that Robert skip college to pursue his dream of someday working for Mad Magazine. This advice doesn’t set well with Robert’s parents (Josh Pais and Maria Dizzia), who inform their son that he’ll probably end up working at a gas station, to which he replies, “I’d love to work at a gas station!” Ah, teenage arrogance.

Katano’s advice hits Robert hard after a tragic event so he drops out of school and moves from his parent’s cushy Princeton, NJ home to a cramped basement apartment in Trenton that resembles the boiler room Freddy Krueger called home. Robert’s roommates, Barry (Michael Townsend Wright), and Steven (Cleveland Thomas Jr.), two older men who don’t catch much sunlight, may not look as frightening as Wes Craven’s villain, but they are icky and sweaty. If I had a choice between them and Krueger as roomies, I’d have to go with Freddy who I believe has better personal hygiene.

Scenes take place in the comic book shop where Robert works and where his best friend Miles (Miles Emanuel) hangs out. Miles, a lanky and mellow dude, is also an aspiring comic but he doesn’t take it as seriously as Robert who feels threatened by his friend. Emanuel is one of the film’s best attributes, his character is under the radar but the NYC actor who worked for The Criterion Collection and now at A24, steals many of the scenes. I think we’ve all known someone like Miles, or at least I have.

The film’s VIP is Matthew Maher who plays Wallace, a violent psycho who once worked for Image Comics. Robert meets him when the teenager begins working for Cheryl (Marcia DeBonis) a Public Defender who unfortunately had to represent Robert in a case. The unhinged Wallace whose wide-eyed gaze is enough to send someone running in the opposite direction is accused of trespassing at Right Aid pharmacy (not Rite Aid) and is now hell-bent on getting the pharmacist fired. The scene where he convinces Robert to antagonize the pharmacist is so elementary and childish, that I couldn’t stop laughing. And why would Robert become an accomplice you ask? Wallace promises he’ll give him an art lesson if the teen forks over $200 and helps him get the pharmacist fired. Look for a cameo in Right Aid by the wonderful Louise Lasser.

“Funny Pages” reminded me of “American Splendor” or “Ghost World” and maybe “Clerks” with its raw look and off-the-cuff dialogue. The film, however, represents Owen Kline’s unique voice which emerges vociferously despite the myriad of past references. The three-dimensional characters may be unpleasant to look at but that’s the catch, they are more engrossing than gross so you can’t take your eyes off the screen. Not every gag works but the ones that do are very funny. Far from mainstream, Kline will have no problem finding his audience with the dark comedy that leaves you longing for a shower and maybe a haircut.

(3 stars)

Now showing at the Texas Theater

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.