Produced by the voguish entities that are A24 and the Safdie brothers, this winningly mordant New Jersey comedy and Cannes Festival favourite concerns the underground of underground comix. Lots of other cool people — including Andy Milonakis and Louise Lasser — pop up on the margins.
Writer-director Owen Kline, the son of Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline, strikes a pleasingly discordant tone, the like of which has not sounded since Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb.
Kline’s Crumb-adjacent world centres on Robert Bleichner (Zolghadri, who made for such a memorable creep in Eighth Grade), a high school student and aspiring cartoonist, who, in the first of many uncomfortable sequences, is mentored by an entirely inappropriate art teacher named Mr Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis).
Get ready to flinch.
Somehow, having ostentatiously turned his back on his middle-class Princeton parents and education, Robert finds even worse role models than his art teacher.
We won’t spoil his bizarre, ill-chosen flatmates in the grottiest apartment — avert your eyes from the fish tank! — ever committed to the big screen. But his hero worship of Wallace (an incredible Matthew Maher), a colour separator for cult favourite Image Comic, is a level above. Or possibly below.
An obnoxious sociopath who can’t visit a pharmacy without incident, Wallace’s appearances make the out-there cringe comedy of Borat or most things dreamed up by Todd Solondz feel comparatively benign.
Adding to the drama, almost everybody in this film could start a fight in an empty room.
More impressively, Kline has captured — and partially crafted — a comic-book subculture, nestled in some period-defying space between GenX and contemporary discontents, a spot that couldn’t be further from the Marvelverse. You can almost smell the dank and the acne, captured in gorgeously grainy 16mm by Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny. Girlfriends, suffice it to say, neither trouble nor weary Funny Pages.
Robert, who is as mean to his chums as he is to his parents, makes for a compelling character study, brilliantly realised by Zolghadri. Every one of his decisions, from dropping out of high school to orchestrating the most appalling Christmas ever, is hilariously wrong.
What an auspicious debut for Kline and what a fine showcase for all other parties.