To tell you the truth, I almost didn’t bother with My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea at EIFF. I had a packed schedule, and it looked like a bore from the programme entry. However, last minute, the prospect of Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, and Reggie Watts starring in their own animated adventure proved to be an attractive prospect – so I went along. Boy am I glad I did that.
The plot is, give or take a few surprises, the title. Schwartzman stars as Dash Shaw (the director), a slightly dislikeable, hipster-esque, pretentious type (a pretty usual Schwartzman character) who co-authors his school magazine with long-term best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts). There’s not much that goes on in school, so Dash often resorts to making stories up in order to generate excitement – not that anyone ever reads them. After a fall-out with Assaf and editor Verti (Maya Rudolph), a sequence of events leads to the school literally sinking into the sea.
What follows is a rollicking, surreal, and surprising disaster movie, filled with idiosyncrasies, dark humour, and welcome weirdness. Shaw exhibits his skill as an animator in many ways, reminding me of a more narrative Liars Biography. Almost every style is included – computer generated, hand drawn, painted, sketched, cartoonish, realistic, photographic, mixed media – giving a diverse and consistently unique feeling. At one point, Shaw includes an incredible stroboscopic trip sequence – coming second only to A Field in England for mind-bending hallucinogenic pleasure. Just about every colour ever invented is showcased here and various style hallmarks (such as text demarcating the floor each section of the film is set in) abound.
It helps that My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is a full-blown disaster movie. If Shaw had gone down a more conventional coming-of-age route, then this endeavour wouldn’t have been so relentlessly entertaining. However, for all intents and purposes, it ends up being a tale of constant action: from escaping underwater passages to scaling fire-strewn elevator shafts, it has it all. The animated style of the film allows for far more outlandish scenarios than a live-action effort – and more delirious entertainment.
Although our ‘heroes’ are rather stereotypical ‘moral loser’ type characters, Shaw does furnish his work with an eclectic mix of stars, such as a macho, globetrotting lunch lady; a headmaster who looks exactly like Snake Plissken; and a pharaoh-like head-boy-deity. These additions to the cast greatly assist in making the movie memorable, and a sure-fire cult classic.
The more you think about an entire high school of kids actually sinking into the sea, the more you realise it is actually a rather dark premise, and Shaw takes this very much in his stride. The humour is surprisingly dark for what seems to be, at points, a family adventure. Students drown, get heads split open, get set on fire, and fall to their deaths – all played mostly for laughs. Perhaps there’s something to be said about school shootings and disasters vis a vis kids here; but I wouldn’t know what to say, or how to say it. At times the humour, especially regarding Schwartzman’s character, can appear a little pretentious, but the bulk of these jokes entail the audience laughing at his amateurish overblown commentary rather than with it.
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is exciting, unique, funny, and beautiful, although it lacks a particularly meaningful message to go with it. It’s filled with memorable voice-stars, a more memorable storyline, and even more memorable animation. It’s a moving piece of art: hypnotic, multi-layered, and beautiful. Although you may struggle to find it in a cinema nearby, I urge you to seek it out where you can.
And, yes, it does have Lena Dunham in it. Just remember – it’s the art that counts, not the artist.
Featured image: The Guardian.