As a purely visual experience, cartoonist Dash Shaw’s first animated feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, is an utter delight, a consistently stimulating riot of colors and styles. It’s as if Shaw saw in this initial opportunity to work on his grandest scale yet an opportunity to cut loose with as much invention as he could possibly muster. Fully painted characters interact in front of crayon-colored backdrops, psychedelic fantasy sequences often interrupt conventional comic-book narrative action, and the color scheme ranges widely from hot neons to black-and-white silhouettes. Each frame of this film teems with visual splendors, and at 75 minutes, it’s trim enough to never once threaten to overstay its welcome.
There’s another surprise in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea on the thematic front, though: its optimism. In some ways, Shaw’s film isn’t that much different from the standard high-school movie, with the social environment of the film’s Tides High School depicted as the typical hierarchy of cliques. And like Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World, this divided landscape is seen through the perspective of a trio of outsiders: Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), Assaf (Reggie Watts) and Verti (Maya Rudolph), all members of a school paper that barely anyone reads.
But just as Clowes didn’t let his two lead characters in Ghost World off the hook for their premature, smart-alecky misanthropy, Shaw refuses to divide his cast of characters up into easy heroes and villains. Thus, Dash is characterized as a florid blowhard with a flair for over-dramatization, which especially comes to the fore when he begins to fear Assaf, his best friend, is drifting away from him as he gets closer romantically to Verti. (Whether Dash is meant to be a representation of the creator’s own teenage self is an intriguing question to ponder; at the very least, such self-effacement is certainly preferable to self-pity.) Even when the disaster hinted in the film’s title strikes, he never quite fully casts off his prickliness, bringing up his petty squabbles with Assaf even when everything around them seems to be burning down.
But in Shaw’s world, even the unlikeliest of people get a chance to show their heroic side in a time of crisis—and there are few bigger crises than the possibility of teenagers dying just before they have a chance to graduate and experience the real adult world. Popular girl Mary (Lena Dunham), previously scornful of Dash (and with his personality, who wouldn’t be?), nevertheless finds it in herself to cast off her usual circle of friends in order to stick with Dash and his crew as they try to find a way out of the sinking school. Even Principal Grimm (Thomas Jay Ryan), who inadvertently led to this disaster in the first place, gets a shot at redemption in its final act. Only Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) is the most consistently heroic of the bunch, evincing genuine concern for the children she serves every day, a sincerity that, along with her considerable karate skills, naturally puts her in the position as the de facto leader of this group trying to get to safety.
Defying expectations of yet another wallow in teenage angst-ridden miserablism, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea instead exudes an openness towards the possibility of people from different walks of life bridging social divides, showing different sides of themselves, learning from their mistakes, and maybe even taking some awkward stabs at maturation. One could also say that Shaw’s animation style reflects that more buoyant perspective, its spirit of restless creativity embodying a sense of wonder that these characters’ high-school experience threatens to ground underfoot. Not that Shaw is sentimental about it. Dash, Assaf and Verti may get a published memoir out of this experience, but it ends up being reviewed mixed-to-negatively—but just as they all survived a high school sinking into the sea, surely they will survive this relatively minor drawback and continue onward in their burgeoning adult lives.
Director: Dash Shaw
Writer: Dash Shaw
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Susan Sarandon, Thomas Jay Ryan
Release Date: April 14, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.