The debut feature of comic book artist Dash Shaw, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, begins by firmly zeroing in on the concerns of young adult fiction: the new school year, the character’s social status, and all the insecurities that are inherent in being a teenager. But these early moments soon take backseat to what is basically a disaster film in miniature, inserting small nuggets of character detail and humor into what is a tired narrative. However, the stock scenario does nothing to derail from the wondrous sensibility of the animation, which is relentlessly inventive.
The film’s focus is on Dash and Assaf (Jason Schwartzmann and Reggie Watts), a pair of sophomores who fruitlessly run the school’s newspaper, and their editor Verti (Maya Rudolph) who will soon drive a wedge between them. Early scenes of the trio trying to figure out how to get people to pay attention to their newspaper are charming in their low-key humor. Soon enough other figures start taking up importance in the film’s world: Mary (Lena Dunham), a popular student without any actual close friends; Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon), whose backstory is one of the film’s secret pleasures; Principal Grimm (Thomas Jay Ryan), the school official who faked the earthquake inspection permits and is responsible for the current disaster. But once the earthquake hits the school (and the school begins to sink, per the title), these charming characters are basically thrown into a survival narrative that allows for little which is eccentric and interesting. The film provides a metaphor for itself during one key scene: in order for the main characters not to drown, they must look for small pockets of air underwater; similarly, the viewer must also look for the small moments of character detail and invention which, thanks to the disaster narrative engine, have been forced to be tucked away here and there.
Fortunately, the film’s animation style is more than enough to keep one engaged. The style here is a nervous, excitable thing, shifting and morphing from scene to scene. In one moment, character movement can wobble and tremble all uneven, held together by the bold black lines used for the characters. In another, it is fluid and sharp (such as when a character demonstrates how they perform a gymnastic routine). And, just for good measure, Shaw will sometimes have his characters run like they’re in a Scooby-Doo cartoon. The backgrounds are acrylic paintings, often a blend of colors which mirror (or sometimes deliberately confuse) the emotional headspace of the main characters (from a sampling of Shaw’s comic book works, he’s carried his experiments with color over to film). Random throwaway moments look like black and white comic book panels, a key scene is animated as a homage to Lotte Reiniger, explosions will often resemble a furious explosion of crayons smeared across the screen. The effect is hyperactive and restless as if relaxing for a second will stop the whole thing dead in its tracks.
Still, it’s hard to dislike a film which name checks Go Nagai. And, the film does enough stylistically through its brief 70 minute runtime to make the project worthwhile. One wishes, however, that Shaw would present a more interesting scenario for his next project; something that fully harnesses the verve of his animation style and pushes it toward greater heights.
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is now playing at SIFF Uptown.