In a fascinating essay on Criterion.com, director Dash Shaw talks about how Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet inspired his love for “limited animation.” He writes, “You can watch the hatching change in this abstract, stoner-y way and just appreciate the drawings and the colors. It can work both as a story and as a trip. I hope my film feels that way.” That passion is certainly shown in his feature debut, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.
With a 78 minute running time, Shaw doesn’t beat around the bush. Dash (Jason Schwartzman) is a sophomore who is determined to climb the social ladder with his best friend, Assaf (Reggie Watts). He’s passionate about writing for the school newspaper that no one reads and is desperate to find a decent story in his boring school. When the editor, Vertie (Maya Rudolph) assigns Assaf a big story about the school auditorium, Dash responds by writing a slander piece about Assaf having erectile dysfunction.
When Dash is stuck in detention, an earthquake hits the school and shatters the cliff it stands on. The entire high school starts to drown, and Dash and his friends have to try to swim their way up to the top floor.
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea feels like an extended episode of Daria. Shaw plays on cliche high school tropes such as the popular girl and the druggie loser. Each character embraces their stereotype and uses it to make the audience laugh. There’s the scary yet badass lunch lady (Susan Sarandon) and the senior class cult surrounding a good looking senior boy. The dialogue is sharp and witty, throwing us clever jokes left and right. Though some jokes might fly over younger teens’ heads, folks who have already finished high school will get them.
But if you wanted to watch a high school sitcom, you could turn on Saved by the Bell. What makes this film so unique is its flat animation. At first glance, the film looks like it’s quickly drawn with a Sharpie, similar to a Charlie Brown cartoon. However, as it goes on, High School’s narrative becomes more psychedelic and avant-garde. Lead animator Jane Samborski doesn’t shy away from the grotesque and shows plenty of gore and dead bodies, but it isn’t nausea inducing. As the frames become more surreal, you start to become more entranced with the way that everything is composed. Soon enough, you start to forget about the characters and their journey. With such a short running time, it’s understandable that Shaw would want to focus on his biggest lure.
With experience in the comic book industry, Shaw is able to instill his quirky voice into his feature film. However, casual film watchers may not understand what he was going for in this film. It’s not entirely clear who the intended audience is because it appears to be too childish for adults and too dark for children. Regardless of who he made it for, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is a very talented debut that will, hopefully, put Shaw and Samborski on people’s radars.