I don’t often get excited for modern animation. The flat, rounded-out, overly precise digital designs of CG-animated movies, including well-respected behemoths of the medium like Disney & Pixar, are largely uninspiring to me, even if they illustrate a well-told story. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is the perfect antidote to these troubled, CG animation times. Jumping from Fantagraphics-published graphic novels to feature-length filmmaking, visual artist Dash Shaw overwhelms the senses in My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea with a tactile, unnecessarily complex visual style that feels like the philosophical opposite of modern CG animation doldrums. Shaw’s loosely sketched figures navigate blindingly colorful backgrounds of ever-shifting multimedia collage, recalling the more psychedelic impulses that invade the black & white stick figure frames of Don Herzfeld’s work or the short-form experiments you might catch in a late-night haze on Adult Swim. This eccentric visual design is paired with an over-the-top, go-for-broke plot (spelled out plainly in the title), but is also tempered by a laid-back, juvenile attitude that calmly strolls through its dizzying whirlpool of ambitious ideas. In a perfect world, a film this visually stunning & naturally cool would gather at least a cult audience through its challenge to the inhuman computer graphics style that typically guides modern animation aesthetics. Instead, My Entire High School Singing into the Sea had a single-week, single-screen theatrical run in New Orleans before disappearing for nearly a full year and then popping up on Netflix to little fanfare. Dash Shaw dared to leave his grubby little fingerprints all over this messy, overly-ambitious debut, delivering the film that modern animation needs, but no audience seems to want.
Jason Schwartzman stars as an unpopular jerk of a high school student who wastes his energy overachieving as a “journalist” for the school newspaper, making this film feel somewhat like an unsanctioned Rushmore sequel. Since he’s both a social nuisance and a known blowhard, his warnings to the student body that the school (which was built both cliffside and on a fault line) is at risk of crumbling at the slightest earthquake are an act of crying wolf. Early in the runtime, this foretold earthquake knocks the entire high school into the adjacent sea and the majority of the film is a Titanic-like race for survival as the building sinks into the water. Schwartzman’s prickly protagonist is joined on his voyage to safety by an impressive voice cast of tagalongs: Reggie Watts & Maya Rudolph as fellow newspaper nerds, Lena Dunham as a Tracy Flick-like over-achiever, and (the MVP of the movie) Susan Sarandon as a tough-as-nails lunch lady who acts as the group’s only muscle. Each speak in hushed, flat voices, incredibly calm in the face of their surroundings burning, crumbling and flooding in ever-worsening mayhem. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a laid-back irreverent comedy, but it does not shy away from the Hellish displays of widespread destruction its over-the-top premise naturally inspires. Our ragtag group of aggressively casual, self-obsessed teens (and their remarkably buff lunch lady) are subjected to the horrors of libraries aflame, flesh-eating miniature sharks, haunted locker rooms, and makeshift dystopian societies that deify social popularity to determine their leaders. It’s all very goofy & flippantly nonchalant about the panic that defines its borders, but it’s also a perilous journey to safety & rescue littered with the blood, guts, limbs, and severed heads of the less-fortunate students who don’t make the cut.
The simplicity of that story is a necessity, as it allows room for the much busier visual assault that obliterates eyeballs for the entirety of the runtime. Before the picture starts, a title card warns of potential risks for inducing photosensitive epilepsy. It becomes immediately apparent why, as just a character running to catch a school bus in the opening scene is a layered, video game-inspired adventure of visual hyperactivity. Dash Shaw’s debut movie is bursting with weirdo experiments that push animation as a medium by remixing older, more hands-on methods into new, stunning arrangements. It’s like the mashup DJ equivalent of a modern animated feature in that way, except that its adoption of past, rudimentary techniques are transformative, not nostalgic. Crayon scribbles, amateur sketchbook doodling, and Prince Achmed-style cutouts supply its elemental building blocks, but their cumulative, layered effect is something much more impressively complex than those D.I.Y. tactics imply. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a simple, irreverent comedy about teen brats winging their way through an absurd, impossible crisis. It’s also a bold vision for how animation can evolve in meaningful, tactile ways without fully succumbing to 100% computerization. And if you don’t personally enjoy what Shaw accomplishes in the picture, don’t worry. His dialogue promises, “Next time I’ll water it down so that it’s shitty and more popular!”