By Elias Savada.
The film is brief (76 minutes), but the title isn’t – My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea. Not as long (word wise) as 1991’s mouthful Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead Part 2, but there’s plenty of dead bodies in both of them. There’s oodles of originality (and sadly, much dullness), too, in cartoonist Dash Shaw’s absurdist genre-bashing, hand-drawn animated feature. This is the kind of bright, gaudy cartoon that you might expect from a pre-school Jackson Pollock while watching Saturday morning television, peppered with some John Hughes (by way of Stuart Smalley) affirmations.
Shaw, a graphic novelist and animator (The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century AD, an IFC web series), developed his new film from a 2009 short story, an autobiographical adventure in which he named the central character after himself. A year later he attended a Sundance Institute’s writer and director workshop, where he would meet his film’s editor (Lance Edmands), his producers (Kyle Martin and Craig Zobel), and Lena Dunham (vocal talent), before she went on to Girls fame. The feature took shape and was drawn from 2010 to 2016.
Loners Assaf Shoaib (Reggie Watts, comedian, actor, and the house band leader for The Late Show with James Corden) and Dash Shaw (the character, voiced by Jason Schwartzman, a fan of the director’s comics), are sophomores at the clifftop Tides High School, the only writers on the student newspaper (“Student Tip #2. Take Vegetable Snack Breaks Between Studies”), a plain vanilla nonentity read by no one. If you’re part of an audience watching the film, you’ll get acquainted with the boys’ curriculum and notice something grumbling below the surface – of the film and the school. Shaw, in collaboration with lead animator Jane Samborski, offers up a quirky, mismatched two-dimensional palette, with casual tidbits of eye candy that occasionally provide darkly precursory comic ticklers. Is that a rat being added to the cafeteria’s soup de jour?
A common case of teenage immaturity affects not just the boys and their over-affectionate newsletter editor Verti Sharpe (Maya Rudolph), but many students and most staff. The film’s rough and low-budgeted feel (which isn’t always bad, or sad), exaggerates this day-in-the-loser-life tale, although the story is never as fascinating as the technique.
The subtle, sideways anarchy that permeates the first 20 minutes of the film quickly changes as a titanic-sized disaster strikes and pandemonium reigns for the rest. If you remember the movie’s title, you’ll know what that cataclysm is, especially the “entire” part. It’s a strange sight, blending moments you would recognize from The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure (but on a much smaller budget). While there’s no Sharknado influences, there are sharks (but no tornadoes).
As the film briefly introduces a typical “listen-to-your-teachers” rescue plan, it’s Dash, Assaf, and their coterie that steer the sinking ship, er, school. Their journey begins as the triage-area cafeteria briefly erupts into a psychedelic food fight, with Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) providing some interesting combat moves. Extended regurgitation follows. This is the film at its most juvenile. Meanwhile, student council president Mary (Dunham) rallies support for Dash’s plan, which has what’s left of the student body (parts) to flee through the roof of the gymnasium/auditorium (the focus of a yet-to-be-written story about the building’s structural integrity). Also keep an eye out for the video game homages that Shaw, the director, tosses in, particularly during a fight sequence in a bathroom.
The film revels in understated gallows humor (or an attempt at it): “They’re not going to graduate,” one student nonchalantly remarks, as dead bodies float by in the hallway. In another scene, an array of dismembered legs that the group of Dash, Assaf, Verti, Mary, Lorraine, and two disfigured upperclassman pass by on the Senior floor looks like a Bloomin’ Onion corsage from an Outback restaurant. The skulls on spears, mutilated corpses, and blood-soaked terrain suggest a Salvador Dali landscape of Hell.
Obviously the film is effectively submerged in its own absurdist fantasy and sarcastic, reflexive humor by this point, which has pretty much followed the school’s sea-worthiness in real time. How on earth could so many survivors on that upper floor band together so quickly into a strange ensemble better found in a high school production of Lord of the Flies?
When the truth about the school’s troubled structural flaws comes out – courtesy of a flashback narrated by the misguided and remorseful (and aptly named) Principal Grimm, voiced by Thomas Jay Ryan – it is too late. The film is more for the fans of Shaw. For the rest of any possible audience, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea will be dismissed.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).