Most of the animated movies that make their way to American theaters are, if nothing else, exceptionally polished: That talking bear may not make you laugh, but you will marvel at the state-of-the-art, photorealistic sheen of its fur, every strand painstakingly rendered. There’s nothing spit-shined, however, about the mixed-modes animation style of My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea. The characters, drawn with thick black lines, look like they’ve escaped from the margins of a used textbook; when they move, it’s with an imperfect analog quiver, betraying the frame-by-frame process that brings them to life. What’s more, they caper against abstract backdrops, splashed and scribbled with acrylic color, that often resemble a rotating portfolio of art-class projects. At one point, the frame literally drips with fresh paint. At another, the background becomes a literal sheet of lined paper. We’re worlds removed from the industry-standard perfectionism of Pixar, DreamWorks, or Studio Ghibli.
This handmade approach is a big part of the film’s DIY charm. It’s also a perfect match for the story, which seems to have been pulled, too, from the messy locker of teen-boy imagination. My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is the first feature from acclaimed cartoonist and graphic novelist Dash Shaw (his work includes the comic-within-the-movie of John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole), and from the moment we’re introduced to the main character, a snarky teenage journalist tellingly named Dash Shaw, it’s clear that the artist will be stomping around some through his own adolescent memories. But this isn’t an exercise in navel-gazing; Shaw affixes whatever autobiographical elements he’s introduced to a kind of coming-of-age disaster movie—a deadpan cartoon comedy about a group of bickering students trying to escape their flooding high school, floor by floor. Think The Poseidon Adventure by way of John Hughes, with a dash of Scott Pilgrim.
The opening scenes promise nothing more dramatic than a clash of young egos, as Shaw’s cartoon surrogate—voiced by the prince of indie drollery, Jason Schwartzman—stews over the romance that’s developed between his best friend/writing partner (Reggie Watts) and their school-newspaper editor (Maya Rudolph). No sooner has this conflict arrived, however, than it’s interrupted by a more pressing one: Their hot-pink, seaside high school is rocked by an earthquake and begins to sink inexorably into the icy drink. The building is hierarchically structured, with the freshmen doomed to drown on the bottom floor and the seniors establishing a post-apocalyptic new world order on the top one. As Shaw’s misfit class heroes seek higher ground, outrunning the water like Leo and Kate on the capsized Titanic, they’re really living out an exaggerated version of their academic career, with survival equated to graduation. But My Entire High School is too dryly irreverent—and too zippy, at a mere 75 minutes—to belabor the point. Doing so would merely distract from its regular formula of mordant nonchalance in the face of carnage: Cartoon bodies float lifelessly, hungry leviathans attack through clouds of red mist, but Dash and his friends keep their tongues firmly planted in cheek.
Shaw, a darling of the New York comics scene, packs his movie with a who’s who of hip voice talent. But these celebrity wringers, including Girls costars Lena Dunham and Alex Karpovsky, can’t pump much soul into characters so sketchily drawn. Still, if the filmmaker’s storytelling isn’t as inventive as his psychedelic scrapbook visuals (including a late ode to the fantastic voyage that closes 2001: A Space Odyssey), My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea still gets by on its colorful and idiosyncratic collage of styles, as well as a certain morbid wish fulfillment. What sophomore outcast, bored stiff by the rituals of high-school life, hasn’t daydreamed about a little catastrophe to liven things up? Shaw, gleefully tossing the cool kids to the sharks, is giving voice to his inner 16-year-old. And in an age when big-screen cartoons have become massive group efforts, it’s nice to encounter one that feels so individualistic, like a kid’s homeroom doodles put into motion.