A mash-up of classic teen movie angst, disaster movie bombast, and avant-garde animation, Dash Shaw’s unique and highly entertaining My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is a beast all its own. Destined to mean different things to different people while trying to please as many different audiences as possible, Shaw’s abstractly animated hybrid offers plenty of laughs and chills, while fully knowing how silly and self-serving the premise is. It could be written off by some as a potential cult movie in the making, but it’s a better film than one destined to be saddled with such a backhanded, head scratching compliment.
Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) is a sophomore at Tides High School, an institution of higher learning that just so happens to be perched precariously on a cliffside right near the ocean. Dash is a budding writer and journalist, often teaming up with his best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts) and Verti (Maya Rudolph), the editor of the school newspaper, to cover the daily goings on around campus, including the numerous building code violations the school has been suffering from as the result of a new gymnasium and auditorium being built on the top floor. Dash’s world is rocked, however, when a burgeoning relationship between Assaf and Verti drives a wedge between the besties both personally and professionally. But soon, they have bigger problems to worry about when an earthquake causes Tide High School to crash into the ocean and start drifting out to sea. The friends have to put their differences off to the side and band together with a group of survivors – including Lena Dunham’s former cool girl turned nerd sympathizer and Susan Sarandon’s badass lunch-lady – to reach the roof of the school and escape to safety before the entire building sinks to the bottom of the ocean.
With My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, Shaw, best known as a graphic novelist, adopts a herky-jerky, off colour style of animation that feels out of place with its conflicting storylines. It sounds like an oddly surreal choice, but then again, the mashing up of a teen film with a Poseidon Adventure styled disaster epic sounds like a weird choice to begin with. Multiple perspectives are showcased often within the same frame, and lengthy sight gags abound throughout Shaw’s film, but the filmmaker and lead animator Jane Samborski never sacrifice character and humour in favour of style.
Visually, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is outlandish and cartoony, but narratively it’s playful and well realized. Shaw understands that teen movies and disaster flicks should be emotionally over the top, but grounded in everyday fears. He understands that the sense of escalation within both genres should be similar, but within those locked off parameters, Shaw still finds a way to challenge himself on an artistic level.
There are plenty of chances for Shaw to display his artistic influences throughout. The spot on casting of Schwartzman as an uppity nerd who needs to learn to be less selfish harkens back to similar turns the actor provided for films like Rushmore, Listen Up Philip, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. A fight scene in a washroom with some bullies feels straight out of a video game. An act of self sacrifice and concurrent speechifying from the eye-patch wearing principal (Thomas Jay Ryan) might be the closest Shaw’s film comes to feeling like an authentic 1970s big budget epic. The literal social climbing Dash and his friends have to do throughout the school is a pointed metaphor, as is a run in with the school’s top jock (John Cameron Mitchell) and leader of a “Lord of the Flies” style gang of ruthless survivalists.
It’s all played for fun, and the combination of Shaw’s unprecedented style of animation and his melding of relatively conventional, but dissimilar storylines works wonders. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea isn’t as long as most disaster films (or even most teen films), but it certainly makes the argument that in many cases, less is most certainly more.
Is My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea opening weekend worthy?
If you like weird animation, teen movies, or disaster flicks, you’ll find plenty to like in this silly, entertaining lark.
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea opens Friday, April 14, 2017 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check their website for more information.