“I like this idea,” the character of Dash Shaw says in the filmmaker Dash Shaw’s “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.” “It has the quality of a dream.”
That notion holds for all of Shaw’s striking feature debut. The cartoonist is a well-known and prolific quantity in underground comics circles. NPR named his “New School” one of the best of 2013. “Bottomless Belly Button” (Fantagraphics) and “Bodyworld” (Pantheon) are strong and distinctive — part Gary Panter punk squiggle, part Charles Shulz emotion, part fine art color sense, part 21st century technique.
“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea,” written and directed by Shaw, takes his distinctive technique — a blend of traditional drawing, animation techniques (such as acetate drawings and paintings laid over a background that might be painted or colored by hand) and Photoshop – and translates it to a full-length animated feature. Well done, everybody.
Dash Shaw (voiced, in a perfect bit of casting, by Jason Schwartzman, who has made a career out of unlikable protagonists) is a sophomore. He and his best pal Assaf (Reggie Watts) work on the school newspaper with Verti (Maya Rudolph). Indeed, the three are the newspaper, and their daily lives are filled with what you remember from high school: mean girls such as Mary (Lena Dunham, also note perfect), weird lunch ladies named Lorrain (a very gravely Susan Sarandon) and various bullies.
Dash, who sees himself as the hero of his own life and possibly everyone else’s, loves the sound of his own voice, especially when overwriting for the paper. As Assaf and Verti grow closer, Shaw is feeling left out, printing bitter rants about his now-estranged friend. Determined to get a real scoop, Dash discovers a genuine problem with the school. Too late — an earthquake sends it literally falling into the ocean.
The allegory for struggling in high school becomes concrete (and rather damp) as Dash and his band of outcasts must avoid sharks, drowning and despair as they ascend the Titanic-like school to get to the senior floor and the roof, hopefully to “graduate” by surviving
Shaw (the creator) does a fine job mixing emotional nuance, surrealism and one of the most striking stylistic mash-ups most animation fans have ever seen (though it is almost exactly like Shaw’s comics work). Crude-looking (but very canny) black outlines are filled with flat, ever-shifting colors depending on mood and plot. Watercolors blend with gouache and oils, John Cameron Mitchell shows up as the king jock and there’s a really great ongoing Go Nagai joke.
Which all makes for a movie that turns a tired indie trope — the outcasts in high school flick — into something fresh, weird and at all times lovely to look at.