My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea plays October 10 and 11 as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival. The film is currently without US distribution. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
Tons of comic books get adapted to the big screen these days, but how many comic book artists actually make the trip? Very few, especially when you stop counting the frame compositions taken out of context and/or misinterpreted by Zack Snyder. So I want to be grateful when I see a whole movie written and directed by Dash Shaw, the artist behind comics like Bottomless Bellybutton, a large graphic novel that explores a family’s fraying bonds in expert, visually striking detail.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, Shaw’s feature film, is visually striking, too. What it isn’t, at least in enough quantity, is moving—in either sense of the word. It’s churlish to complain that a smaller-scale, more personal animation project doesn’t have the fluidity of a state-of-the-art Pixar creation (or even a more handcrafted Laika creation), but the animation in High School sometimes feels downright constrained, like the animated characters are actually moving slower than their real-life counterparts would.
That slow-motion storytelling gave Bottomless a lovely, meditative quality, but High School is a more arch, less emotionally open affair. It starts with Dash (Jason Schwartzman) and his best friend/fellow outcast Assaf (Reggie Watts) beginning a new school year determined to improve their social standing. But there’s not much opportunity for that when they’re working on the school paper, especially with Dash’s fancifully overblown writing style (he expresses his fondness for “turgid prose”) and his growing resentment towards Assaf’s closeness with editor Verti (Maya Rudolph). When disaster strikes the school and it does indeed begin sinking into the sea, kids from a variety of cliques are thrown together into surreal turmoil.
Schwartzman is natural voice-casting for a pretentious, sometimes aggressive teenage nerd, and yet he’s been playing parts like this for so long (as a kid in Rushmore; as a curdled adult in Listen Up Philip) that having him regress back to sixteen is both on-the-nose and a little arch. Despite the autobiographical character name implying some impressionistic degree of memoir, however caricatured, High School has the detached, fake-ish feeling of adults playing children. The women do better: the often-bold Rudolph goes soft-spoken as Verti, and Lena Dunham lends some feeling to a preppy, popular girl, and also unironic zip to mean-girl lines like “I hope we never become friends.” Susan Sarandon does understated work as a lunchlady, complemented by a drawing that conveys the world that lives inside her grim, round face.
There are great drawings throughout My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, along with brilliant swashes of color and some terrific fonts. It’s just hard to sink into beyond its superficial qualities as a neat, fleeting sensory experience (and even on that level, it feels protracted despite a slim 75-minute running time). “It has the logic of a dream,” one character remarks about the disaster unfolding onscreen, and I’m thinking: Maybe don’t say your excuses out loud, Shaw. Maybe he’s closer, as a filmmaker, to the Schwartzman smarm than I initially assumed.