MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA Review
Director: Dash Shaw
Economy has always been at the forefront of great filmmaking. Even the most magnificent evergreens of cinematic history profit from proverbial belt-tightening. But economy is not dictated by a short runtime, rather an understanding of what needs to be accomplished in each and every scene. As such, it’s also the most common setback in a filmmaker’s debut, a flaw that is only overcome by the most adept young directors. Enter Dash Shaw: 34 year-old comic book artist and director of MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA, a sublime coming-of-age story that’s caught somewhere between the nihilism of Terry Zwigoff’s GHOST WORLD and the mumblecore sentimentality of Phil Matures and Mike Luciano’s ANIMALS (a show that I could easily imagine fighting for Shaw’s kinetic humor).
Hold your breath, here comes acne!
Shaw’s film follows two lifelong friends: the autobiographically named Dash and his best friend, Assaf, whose friendship faces severe hiccups when love gets in the way. As sophomores in high school and writers for the school paper, the two are going through the classic hurdles of adolescence. To top things off, their high school just fell off a cliff and is plummeting into the sea. With this sudden turn of events, Dash and Assaf get a chance to make up, save the day, and navigate through the treacherous waters (pun intended) of high school hierarchy, an allegory made all the more potent by the fact that the school is composed of four floors, each for its respective years. Starting in the sophomore floor (the freshman are instantly dead, duh!), Dash, Assaf, and a slew of supporting characters make their way past the junior and senior floors in hopes of “graduating” through the school’s attic.
The appeal to Shaw’s film is its respect to the craft of animation. MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA is an inter-medium project, combining brief elements of live action and still imagery within its hand-drawn animation. The art direction is sublime, smudging, scratching and splattering all forms of paint, watercolors, crayons and so forth onto the screen. Both minimalistic and perplexing in its aesthetic, Shaw’s imagery is so wonderfully singular that it makes up for any simplicities in its narrative. And that’s where economy comes in. Shaw’s film is restrained, beautiful, hilarious, cynical, and heartfelt. Its honesty is front and center, and it accomplishes everything it wants to in a brisk 75 minutes.
Do the worm, bookworm!
The voice cast, composed of all-stars Reggie Watts, Lena Dunham, Maya Rudolf, Jason Schwartzman, and Susan Sarandon among others adds a surreal, comic charm to the high school antics. In the ilk of the aforementioned ANIMALS, Shaw’s film circumvents any hokey writing through the self-deprecating, quirky vocal deliveries. The sincerity of Shaw’s dialogue is the home run here, and despite the film’s visual appeal, it’s the care and attention with which it is written that makes it tick. The rapid-fire deliveries and comic wit harkens back to the writing in MEAN GIRLS, and the caricatures of high school stereotypes take me right back to the endlessly charming FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. To say that MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA is indebted to its predecessors would be a wallop of an understatement, but its aesthetic delivery and wacky premise keeps it safely afloat.
Perhaps the only serious criticism I can offer against Shaw’s work is that his film is a little easy. Characters respond and develop exactly as one would expect from a high school comedy, and Shaw never does anything to subvert our expectations of his protagonists. The fact that the film’s leads are hapless nerds and the bulk of antagonists are know-it-all jocks, glitter queens, and mean bullies is all a little undemanding. And that’s what keeps Shaw’s film from reaching the greatness of Zwigoff’s GHOST WORLD; he still operates in a rather been-there-done-that ballpark. His film is charming, smart, and wonderfully life-affirming, but it doesn’t have the bite or the authentic vulgarity that should be expected in a post-Apatow era.
Pictured: Me on acid
It’s pretty much impossible not to recommend Shaw’s film. It’s a wonderful showcase of talent, boasts a lovely voice cast, and champions alternative forms of cinematic storytelling. Shelling out a few bucks for Shaw’s delightful 75 minutes is more than just base-level entertainment; it’s a means of supporting an art-form that almost never makes it to the silver screen, and a celebration of young talent. God knows if Shaw can ever make another feature film with these stylings, so if you want to see someone other than Pixar and Disney giving us animated content (not to mention slightly more mature stories), you better make your way to the nearest art-house theatre.