By Lily Goodman
The first feature film of acclaimed graphic novelist and cartoonist Dash Shaw, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, gives its viewers a fresh take on your run-of-the-mill animated movie. These days, filmmakers and animators, in particular, have the ability to make almost anything come to life, with the majority of them doing so and going to great lengths to create their well-polished and high quality animated productions.
So after years of exceedingly perfected animation, Shaw’s unrefined, handmade approach with Sharpie-like doodles, abstract backgrounds, and a mix between collage and painting provides a nice change of cinema scenery and for that receives some major accolades.
The plot, however, does not, mostly because it’s pretty underdeveloped, and even with a cast of big-name stars such as Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, and Reggie Watts voicing the characters, the film still ends up falling short with its story line.
The opening scenes introduce high-school sophomores, outcasts, and best friends, Dash (Jason Schwartzman) and Assaf (Reggie Watts), who are the only writers for their school newspaper. When Editor Verti (Maya Rudolph) suggests that Assaf be able to write his own stories rather than solely collaborate with Dash, adolescent egos inevitably clash and conflict arises. But then, not even five minutes later, the students’ seaside high school is hit by an earthquake, and of course, as the film title suggests, their entire high school begins to sink into the adjacent sea.
The rest of the film enacts a race for survival, literally, as Dash, Assaf, and the rest of the students attempt to not drown and then, what could be seen as a figurative assertion, as in, teenagers just trying to survive the daily horrors that come with being in high school. But Shaw’s film doesn’t really do either the literal or the figurative assertions justice. At only 75 minutes, the film doesn’t have enough time to delve into any genuine motivation of its characters, and that lack of complexity is what makes the film off-putting.
What’s sort of puzzling is that the plight of high-school students, particularly the misfits, seems to be what Shaw wanted to portray with his film because, perhaps, he was one of those misfits back in the day? But with the characters’ tongue-in-cheek remarks and nonchalant attitude toward pretty much everything, the film ends up being somewhat dismissive toward the struggles of adolescents, and then, as the viewer, it’s hard to know what the point of watching it is anymore, other than for its interesting animation.
However, with all that aside, the visuals itself is a good reason to see the film. If nothing else, Shaw’s début feature is a feast for the eyes with its bright colors, trippy drawings, and experimental animation. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is definitely a rule-breaker, and it’s obvious that the well-known actors starring in it — which also include Lena Dunham and Susan Sarandon — believed in Shaw’s vision and beguiling visuals. Maybe the audience should believe in it, too. But just the visuals.