If some teenage version of Reading Rainbow coughed up a hallucinatory fever dream into a two part episode cartoon, it might look something like Dash Shaw’s debut, the animated My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. Like the product of a super articulate hipster accustomed to wiling away countless hours and energy on homemade sketches, this handcrafted stylization from comic book artist Shaw is assisted by some notable performers providing voice work. A unique satire on adolescent angst trapped in the broken bureaucracy of the education system, this efficiently paced flight of fancy would have been near impossible as a live action film. At the same time, the film’s sometimes complacent strangeness allows one to overlook its straightforwardness considering the novelty of its form, missing the opportunity to tease some more meaningful subtexts, perhaps in an effort to stay cute.
As Dash (Jason Schwartzman) and Assaf (Reggie Watts) enter their sophomore year of high school, the two slightly acerbic nerds find themselves concerned with moving up the social hierarchy even though supposedly rejecting archaic concepts of worth. Together, they work with the equally geeky editor Verti (Maya Rudolph) on the Tides High school newspaper, a printed publication, like all the others, suffering a slow, painful death thanks to online media. In an effort to generate interest in the paper (and also to assuage his own jealousies), the verbose Dash writes a nasty article about Assaf replete with double entendre about his friend’s penis. However, Principal Grimm (Thomas Jay Ryan) is not amused, and removes Dash from the paper.
In exile, Dash roams the bowels of the school (while Assaf and Verti begin a flirtation), and discovers the building, which rests atop a cliff, did not meet earthquake code-safety standards. But when he tries to alert the school, Dash only lands himself in detention. And then, the unthinkable happens, and an earthquake casts the entire student body and faculty into the Pacific. As they sink into the ocean, Dash, aided by the surly but pragmatic Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon), they form a posse assisting those interested in rising up from the bowels of the sinking building to senior level so they can make it to safety.
Clearly, Shaw’s main influence here seems to be the godmother of Hollywood disaster films, the mothball eaten melodrama The Poseidon Adventure (1972), in which a star studded cast led by Gene Hackman’s preacher man struggles to survive a journey through an upside down ship in order to make it to the ocean surface. A similarly colorful cast of stock characters are on hand here, including Lena Dunham (an envious cheer leader), Alex Karpovsky (the druggy), and perhaps best of all, a glorified jock (John Cameron Mitchell), a figure commanding worshipful followers who have quickly established a mindless cult around him in their final hours of survival.
Shaw’s mixture of variously textured animations helps create a rather psychedelic palette, jarring wonderfully with a manic score from Rani Sharone (which picks up a lot of beats where My Entire High School flatlines). While all of these characters are amusing, Susan Sarandon shines, commanding the film as Lunch Lady Lorraine, the patron saint of anguished, disconsolate teens.