Running your high school newspaper can be a hell of a power trip. Back during my teenage kicks, my friends and I conquered the school paper, accepting any open heart prose and poetry from peers, then liberally changing all of them to be about strawberry yogurt before printing. The back page came with a coupon to give me a high five, and students cashed them in for weeks. Regardless of whether he helmed his school paper in reality, Dash Shaw, alt cartoonist, first-time director, and protagonist (played by Jason Schwartzman) of My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, was corrupted by this power. The ego-tripping drags Shaw (the character) into hell and high water.
Loquacious, headstrong, and panging for a meaningful story, sophomore Dash Shaw (again, the character) is suddenly separated from his best friend and writing partner Assaf (Reggie Watts) by Tides High’s student editor Verti (Maya Rudolph). He does not take the reassignment very well, sneaking into the paper’s office to revenge-print a late edition to humiliate the student press corp. Only after getting booted out, Shaw finds his scoop: that Tides High is structurally unsound, critically, from a new gymnasium addition. Now blacklisted, Shaw experiences a boy who cried wolf moment, a short lived humility before the prophecy comes true. A fault line ruptures, the school slides into the ocean, beginning a combination of Student Bodies and The Poseidon Adventure (which you’d think would just be Breaker High but no, no it isn’t just Breaker High).
Still precious but not quite pretentious, My Entire High School has a lot of your favourite things about indie comic movies and successfully dekes around some of the things you loathe about them. While the heroes of these films are often quirky mouthpieces for their creators (Ghost World, American Splendor), Shaw’s own avatar is less of a lonely outsider than an affable loser, a jerk with a heart of gold who ends up as the butt of most jokes. Instead of lobbing jabs at culture abroad, the cast usually engage in endearing, semantical conversations about what it means to have friends in high school, or whether there exists more good smells than bad smells. These debates often disrupt the effort to survive. Despite the absurd crisis, it’s very playful and earnest, and this mood opens up the door for a surprisingly touching subplot about a survivalist lunch lady (Susan Sarandon).
The animation, a translation of Shaw’s work as a cartoonist, works well. A flattening of a space, turning a sinking high school into a Castlevania map, isn’t reduced into two dimensions due to some decadent collage work. That feels similar to the “And She Was” video. The constant light show is more reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi, but while his layering in Wizards and Heavy Traffic were meant to disorient stoners of their day, My Entire High School’s is designed around more hypnotic movement and flow. Seeing cartoonist Frank Santoro’s name pop up in the credits for working on the background paintings felt like an answer to a question I was subconsciously thinking.
Dash Shaw’s first feature film is some stellar stuff. The worst thing to say about the film is that some set pieces stretch out, the finale in particular moves the goal post several times, but My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is an impulsive and cute animated film, deserving the attention of anyone hoping to see their teenage years get fed to the sharks.
Friday, Sept 16, 8:15pm @ Scotiabank