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High school can be a brutal time for the teenage outsider, with moments of terror that can feel like being caught in an earthquake, burnt alive, drowning or swimming in a pool of sharks. All those factors are represented literally in graphic novelist Dash Shaw’s first animated feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, a sweetly subversive dig at the constricting codes of teen hierarchies, the sheep-like mentality of youth and the failures of the education system. Loaded with a name voice cast often playing amusingly against type, this droll toon comedy should provide kicks especially for hipsters whose high school years are still vividly imprinted recent memories.
Shaw’s crazy-quilt collage style blends naive crayon and pencil drawings with acrylic abstract-expressionist daubs and more articulated gouache paintings, hard-edged comic book sketches, silhouettes, psychedelics and snatches of photorealism. That expressive visual mix is well suited to the emotional turbulence of high school, as is Rani Sharone’s manic carnival music. If the film, even at a fleet 82 minutes, loses some steam once the initial novelty wears off, its witty comedy, funny characterizations and adherence to the classic disaster-movie template keep it engaging.
Shaw’s alter ego is Dash (Jason Schwartzman), who informs his fellow nerd Assaf (Reggie Watts) at the start of sophomore year that it’s time to move further back in the school bus and higher up the social ladder. Viewed as pariahs in the ruthless school caste system, Dash and Assaf work with neurasthenic editor Verti (Maya Rudolph) on the Tides High school newspaper, a publication struggling to find a readership in the dying days of print media.
When Dash concocts a smear story about Assaf’s erectile dysfunction in a bid to keep the gazette alive, he alienates his best friend and gets kicked off the paper. Assaf and Verti explore the first flickers of romance while Dash roams the bowels of the California institution, perched on top of a cliff, discovering records for the new auditorium that fail to meet earthquake-code safety standards. His alarmed warnings fall on deaf ears, landing him in detention with contemptuous Mary (Lena Dunham), a gymnast with student political ambitions.
Faster than you can say Irwin Allen, a minor quake sends the school sliding into the Pacific, as rats flee the building and the library goes up in flames. Popular girl Gretchen (Louisa Krause) gets stranded on floating debris circled by sharks, like Blake Lively in The Shallows, though she proves less resourceful.
Aided by Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon), a kind of badass ninja spirit guide for defenseless teens, Dash becomes Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure, leading a small group of followers — the post-rapprochement Assaf and Verti, as well as convert Mary — upwards through the sinking wreckage to the senior school floor and the promise of safety. En route, each of them gets to prove his or her mettle as they encounter druggy slacker Drake (Alex Karpovsky) and his posse, guilt-stricken Principal Grimm (Thomas Jay Ryan) and jock superstar Brent Daniels (John Cameron Mitchell), enthroned school royalty revealed to be a dim-wit A-hole.
Will the beleaguered editorial crew survive to pen a melodramatic book account of the ordeal and receive a mixed-to-negative Times review? And with college applications in limbo and bleak employment prospects, will the protagonists overcome the stigmas of high school to find a foothold in the real world? See this offbeat original to find out.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Vanguard); also in New York Film Festival
Production companies: Electric Chinoland, in association with Low Spark Films, Washington Square Films
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Maya Rudolph, Reggie Watts, Susan Sarandon, Thomas Jay Ryan, Alex Karpovsky, Louisa Krause, John Cameron Mitchell
Director-screenwriter: Dash Shaw
Producers: Kyle Martin, Craig Zobell, Dash Shaw
Executive producers: Matthew Johnson, Tyler Davidson, Kevin Flanigan, Joshua Blum
Lead animator: Jane Samborski
Music: Rani Sharone
Editor: Lance Edmands, Alex Abrahams
Sales: Cinetic Media
Not rated, 82 minutes
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