There are so many possibilities in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, the directorial debut of indie comics artist Dash Shaw. There’s the image of an entire high school building adrift on the ocean and sinking. Think Lord of the Flies meets Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital meets The Poseidon Adventure. There’s the voice cast, which includes Susan Sarandon, Reggie Watts, Lena Dunham, John Cameron Mitchell, Maya Rudolph, and Jason Schwartzman. There’s the shoddy-but-cool aesthetic about the film--a little bit outsider art sketchbook, a little bit art school chic.
This is a mumblecore animated film just oozing with hipster coolness. That may be the problem. It’s all indie pedigree and postures, but not much else. Think of that person at a party who has lots of cultural capital but nothing worthwhile to say. I felt as if the whole film was just slapped together and released in a self-satisfying way.
[This review originally ran as part of Flixist’s coverage of the 54th New York Film Festival. Ithas been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea
Director: Dash Shaw
Release Date: April 14, 2017
The set-up is at least sort of promising. An earthquake sends a high school on a hill by the ocean crashing down into the water. Students have to swim from floor to floor for air and survival, with a stratified class hierarchy--freshmen on the bottom and seniors on top. There’s something questlike about it all, structured like a videogame with different kinds of levels--one sequence is even presented like a screen from the original Double Dragon, with characters throwing punches and jumpkicks with the same poses as Billy and Jimmy Lee.
But Shaw takes all of these potentially interesting ideas and dials them down to the same level of slacker disinterest. The voice actors deliver their lines in a uniform indifferent monotone, as if they’ve begrudgingly recorded their dialogue one afternoon and left. The jokes are never distinct from the asides or the exposition. Apart from the heroic Lorraine the Lunch Lady (voiced by Sarandon), everyone sounds interchangeable. Since none of the voices stand out, it makes the all-star indie cast seem like needless stunt casting for the indie cachet. Lots of the dialogue gets lost in the audio mix, with any hint of personality drowned in the repetitive, overbearing, wall-to-wall score. This is a 77-minute movie that just drones on and on.
It doesn’t help that the protagonist, Dash (Schwartzman), is the least interesting character in the entire film. He’s a self-important high school journalist and stand-in for the real life Dash Shaw. Yes, how twee, this fictional story is supposed to be semi-autobiographical. Dash is the type of tepid lead who gets in the way of the more worthy supporting players. His fellow staff members on the newspaper, Assaf (Watts) and Verti (Rudolph), have a warmth to them as well as a burgeoning crush that would have been great to watch unfold front and center. Even Dunham’s overachieving all-goodnik Mary could have been the compelling hub of the story--a class president go-getter in survival mode. But no, it’s boring old Dash, the “ugh, that guy” sort of hipster dude.
There are moments of beauty in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, like the opening animation of Dash in silhouette running to class, or select flashbacks rendered with great care, or parts of the conclusion that have a zen-like quality. Most of it, though, looks like a hodgepodge of watercolor, acrylic, and magic marker, with a wonky, unrefined aesthetic. It simulates the stuff made while screwing around in a high school art class. The choice makes sense, but it’s not always interesting to look at in full wobbly motion. It’s animation with a sort of haphazard craft--art as marginalia rather than a point of focus, a talented person’s creative assignment put together the night before.
I was particularly put off by the film’s defensiveness. At points, Dash and Assaf brag about being great writers whose genius and talent no one will understand. That metatextual boast always irks me. I rarely feel that a creative work should gird itself against criticism so overtly, and in such an insecure manner. Especially in this case, in which there’s so little at stake and so little offered. Why be so precious over an animated shrug?