My Entire High School… manages to keep its head comfortably above water.
In his directorial debut, graphic novelist Dash Shaw uses vivid magical realism to imbue the equivalent of textbook-cover doodles with enough verve and wit to create a compelling, if somewhat pretentious, teen animated feature. His simply-drawn, sarcastic high school characters recall MTV’s “Daria,” while their Squigglevision quivering nostalgically harkens to turn-of-the-millennium Adult Swim or Comedy Central fare. But this imaginative film transcends derivation thanks to its inspired use of impressionist and surrealist imagery set to an infectious synth score.
As its title suggests, this is technically a disaster film, but the cataclysm occurs more like a fever dream than as havoc wreaked by the natural world. At the center of it all are sophomore journalists Dash (Jason Schwartzman) and his best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts). They work for the floundering student newspaper and, despite their best efforts, they’ve failed to revive it with fantastical stories about ghosts in the locker room. They differ on a few points—Assaf frets that their writing may be too “overwrought” while Dash counters by claiming an affinity for “turgid prose”—but Dash more or less ends up getting his way through the sheer abrasiveness of his personality. Dash looks upon jocks and student government types like Mary (Lena Dunham) with scorn, while strategizing with newspaper colleague Verti (Maya Rudolph) about ways to make their little-read rag more appealing. Melodrama ensues when Dash sells Assaf and Verti down the river by printing a gossip piece about them.
But before the dust can settle on that scandal, Dash gets the scoop of a (high school) lifetime, sounding the alarm that the new auditorium is not up to code and that, upon the next earthquake, the coastally-situated Tides High is likely to topple from the shore into the ocean. No one believes him until that exact thing happens. Students tumble and meet their violent ends, the library goes up in flames like a tinderbox, hungry sharks stalk through the submerged portions of the building, and the school becomes a floating fortress of death. Dash and his band of survivors are forced to make their way up the multi-storied tower to the senior floor, literally engaging in the figurative upward mobility they yearned for in the film’s opening scenes.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea succeeds through Shaw’s unique visual style—he’s known for using low-tech Photoshop tricks and here utilizes multi-layered and multimedia artwork for his increasingly phantasmagorical backdrops—but it rises to another level thanks to the impeccable vocal casting. Getting Schwartzman back into a cantakerous, busybody high-schooler role (if in voice only) inevitably recalls Rushmore’s Max Fischer. Few voices can make plain, direct statements as oddly amusing as Watts’s. And Susan Sarandon adds an X-factor to the feature as an eccentric, husky-voiced lunch lady. Despite its inherent sensationalism, the film offers a pretty flimsy story, and even at a trim 75 minutes it manages to drag, but with the right balance of impudent snark and trippy, synth-laden visuals, My Entire High School… manages to keep its head comfortably above water.