Dash Shaw is a comic book artist. He has written several graphic novels, and is known for his abstracted drawing style. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is his feature film debut – he wrote and directed it – and it looks more like graphic novel than an animated feature film. The characters do not have fluid motion, and instead move in a choppy style. The colors constantly, veering between psychedelic imagery and constraints of a newspaper funny page. This is not inherently a problem, although Shaw can never quite shake his film’s lifeless quality. Despite an all-star cast of comedians and indie actors, this allegory about high school social strata barely stays afloat.
Dash Shaw is also the name of the film’s hero. He is a high school sophomore, and Jason Schwartzman provides his voice. Dash is unpopular and knows it, so he attempts to assert some superiority by positioning himself as the ace reporter at his school’s newspaper. Reggie Watts plays Assaf, Dash’s best friend, and they share the same byline until their editor Verti (Mya Rudolph) suggests otherwise. Dash lashes out when Verti and Assaf begin an awkward romance, so he looks to the school’s bowels for the next Big Story. That lands him in detention with student body president Mary (Lena Dunham), but not before he learns the school is not earthquake-proof. An earthquake happens moments later – of course it does – so the sophomores all struggle for survival as they fight to reach the surface.
On one level, anyway, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a riff on disaster films from the 1970s. It recalls The Poseidon Adventure most acutely, since the architecture of the sinking structures are both important to the plot. Each floor of the school is meant for a different grade level, so as the sophomores ascend to the junior floor and beyond, they’re met with jeers from similarly panicked upperclassmen. Despite a lot of death, this is never a suspenseful film: the animation is too abstract for that, and the voice actors deliver their lines with wry detachment. That detachment even continues to the audio mixing. The dialogue is spliced together so we can hear that the actors say the lines in a vacuum, giving the script a stilted quality. A lot of voiceover is recorded this way, and yet shows like Archer manage to make it all sound snappy. This film sounds like actors are taking turns at a table read, so most attempts at comedy ultimately falter.
Although this film lacks many traditional animation elements, there is a lot to admire about it. The underwater sequences are colorful and pleasantly hallucinatory, which suggest struggle even if there is no sense of how long any character holds their breath. Susan Sarandon pops up as Lorraine, an ill-tempered lunch lady who thinks nothing of fighting deranged students like a ninja. More importantly, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea has a deeper purpose, and that is to satirize the need for high school students to find cliques. No character, especially Dash, is particularly likable – they are too self-involved for that, and the absorption continues long after they’re rescued. Shaw is a subversive filmmaker, suggesting a boredom with traditional animation that informs his every choice. Unfortunately, his subversion ultimately gets in the way of his craft, to the point where his film is too fractured to celebrate.