My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea (2017)

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!”

-Brandon Ledet

The Overnight (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

Usually, filmmakers have a tendency to keep their dark comedy & their sex romps separate. Full-blown sex comedies are usually mindless entertainment more concerned with raunchy gags than existential contemplation & while a black comedy might lighten the mood with an occassional sexual diversion (last year’s sadistic Cheap Thrills comes to mind), it’s rare that sex is its main focus. Even the recent raunch fest Wetlands, which I absolutely loved, kept its dark streak separate from its hedonism, a difficult task for a movie mostly remembered for its ungodly volume of on-screen semen. There might be a reluctance in blending the sexual with the menacing both because it’s awkward to take sex seriously & because sexual menace is difficult to play for a laugh for reasons that should be more than obvious without explanation.

In The Overnight, we have a surprisingly successful homogeneous blend of the black comedy & the sex romp, one where both elements are fused together completely instead of played off each other for a contrasting effect. The movie strikes a consistently terrifying tone through its depiction of underhanded sexual coercion, but somehow never loses grasp of the sillier raunch tangents you’d expect in a typical sex comedy. The effect of this powerful combination is that the sex gags are twice as funny as they’d normally play, thanks to the way they relieve overbearing tension of the the film’s sexual menace. In a lot of ways The Overnight follows the typical party out of bounds story structure of classic black comedies like The Exterminating Angel & Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where in-over-their-heads guests feel compelled to remain at a social function even though the mood has soured, but the four characters at the center of this particular party out of bounds & their surprising tenderness for each other are unique to the genre. It’s a very well-written example of a very familiar story that I have a huge soft-spot for.

Besides the deft balance & gradual escalation of the razor sharp script, The Overnight‘s strongest asset is its cast. Adam Scott & Taylor Schilling are fantastic as the befuddled North Westerners struggling to decide if their Los Angeles party hosts are just having a California-style good time or if they’re swingers trying to take their newfound friends to bed. Jason Schwartzman & Judith Godrèche steal the show as the film’s sexual menace, making both sly & overt sexual advances through maneuevers as simple as a hand on a knee and as ludicrous as an art studio packed with abstract paintings of buttholes. It’s difficult to decide through most of The Overnight whether the L.A. couple is taking advantage of their more uptight out-of-towners guests or if they’re apparent sweetness is genuine. The tension between those two competing readings is a great dynamic and both tones could be read in some of the film’s best scenes, like in a stoned, strobe-lit dance party or in a literal dick-measuring contest by the poolside. It’s a testament to the film’s effectiveness that what lingers in your mind after the credits is not the film’s individual sex gags, but rather the implications of the relationships that form between the film’s two central couples. It’s both an equally fun & terrifying experience, as well as a must-see for fans of Jason Schwartzman at his most mischievous.

-Brandon Ledet