As someone who always wished my high school would fall into the sea—preferably before I had to dress out for P. E.—I had high hopes for a movie called My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.
Sadly, it never happened in my case, but anyone who has ever entertained such a fantasy might get a vicarious kick out of this cartoon mashup of teen comedy, disaster movie and social satire. But while it gets points for cheeky energy, be warned that it comes with a few caveats.
The story began as a comic book whose creator, Dash Shaw, is making his first attempt at an animated feature. Without a Disney-sized budget for laborious techniques, the images tend to look a little cheesy: faces have a narrow range of expressions, and the lines defining faces and silhouettes always shiver slightly onscreen. Shaw jazzes things up with bold watercolor washes, or funky crayon images, or paper and cardboard cutouts superimposed on the background. And lots of pulsing color, which leads to the most important caveat—an onscreen warning that the movie’s stroboscopic effects might trigger a reaction in viewers with epilepsy.
So. Is what’s onscreen worth the potential risk? Well, I wish I could say this DIY cartoon makes up for its lack of technique with vivid imagination or riotous satire. But while there is plenty of fun stuff here, all of the movie’s ambitious ideas can’t quite sustain the whole.
Dash (voice of Jason Schwartzman) is entering his sophomore year at Tides High School, somewhere along the California coast. He and his buddy, Assaf (voice of Reggie Watts) are the entire writing staff of a one-page print-out school paper edited by Verti (Maya Rudolph) that nobody reads. Nevertheless Dash sees himself as a crusading reporter, and is given to narrating his daily life. (“It’s going to be a big year for our hero and his faithful sidekick.”)
Dash sneaks into the school archives and stumbles onto the story of his career: the safety inspection approval for the school’s recently completed construction project was forged by Principal Grimm (Thomas Jay Ryan). Because the school is built on a fault line, it’s a disaster in the making. Dash is sent to detention along with Mary (Lena Dunham), a member of the popular-girl clique who’s snuck into the archives to retrieve her confiscated cell phone. They’re together when the inevitable quake happens, the cliffside supporting the school erodes, and the building and everyone in it are pitched into the ocean.
From this point, the plot becomes Titanic-like. The building is sinking, but not all at once; as various sections collapse, it keeps tilting one way, then another, with different areas filling with water as everyone scrambles for higher ground. Filmmaker Shaw indulges in plenty of cartoon carnage, with kids eaten by sharks and lots of drowned bodies floating by, as “our heroes,” joined by gruff Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon), fight to survive.
Anyone who’s ever suffered through high school will appreciate a joke about a student threatened with a negative report going on his (dreaded) “Permanent Record.” Or the idea that a clique of dimwitted jocks on the top floor organize an obedient feudal society around their alpha leader (a voice cameo by John Cameron Mitchell). And I loved it when brainy Verti, about to attempt a physical stunt to save the others, pumps herself up with the mantra, “I’m Ursula K. LeGuin! I’m Gertrude Stein!”
But there’s a lot of filler here, too. Familiar old tropes about popular mean girls, or JD kids in search of drugs, don’t really add much. An attempted psychedelic effect toward the end of the movie, full of pulsating colors gradually reduced to dots, just becomes irritating. And lots of the same shots are repeated over and over again, throughout the movie, as if the filmmakers were desperately trying to stretch things out to feature length. Still, it might have an afterlife as midnight movie, based on sheer chutzpah,
MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA
With the voices of Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, and Susan Sarandon. Written and detected by Dash Shaw. A GKids release. Rated PG-13. 75 minutes.