Blissful Anarchy in ‘My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea’

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CHICAGO – In animation, the real innovators who evolve the artform are the risk takers who stamp their own inspiration on those cartoon images. Director Dash Shaw is one of those breakthroughs, who creates a work of anarchistic art in “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.”

Turning the institutional concept of high school literally upside down, the animated epic uses an extreme (and somewhat comic) disaster to separate the true heroes from the pretenders. The insecurities, social cliques and outsiders are all present, and writer/director Shaw uses them as society’s pecking order, on a Titanic that has become their school building. The voice actors are familiar – Susan Sarandon portrays a kick-ass lunch lady with gravel-voiced sincerity – but the real star is Dash Shaw’s cartoon vision, which mixes his simple line drawings with a kaleidoscope of amazing colors and surreal set pieces. With shadings of “Yellow Submarine” blended with TV animation stylings from the 1960s to the ‘80s, “My Entire High School…’ is maximum entertainment.

Dash (voice of Jason Schwartzman) and Assaf (Reggie Watts) are best friends who have made it to their Sophomore year at Tides High School – the school overlooks the sea – but are still looked upon as nerdy outsiders. They, along with the student editor Verti (Maya Rudolph), publish an alternative newsletter criticizing school politics and cliques. Verti and Assaf are beginning to feel an attraction, which freezes Dash even further outside.

The Survival Crew of ‘My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea’
Photo credit: GKIDS

In retaliation, Dash prints lies about his friends, which gets him in trouble with Principal Grimm (Thomas Jay Ryan). He is forced to detention when he uncovers some records showing the school on a major fault line, and is stuck in a room with popular girl Mary (Lena Dunham) when the earthquake hits. The entire building falls into the sea and begins to sink, and the survival instinct kicks in for Dash and his friends, which includes Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon).

Even though that seems like a standard disaster movie plot, the way the animation is presented – especially in its sharp stick humor – is both a visual treat and an hilarious happening. Dash Shaw is a comic book artist of underground popularity, and he extends his perspective onto the cartoon palette with a one-of-a-kind atmosphere of colors and settings that would be at home in a modern art museum… it has whimsy and gravity at the same time.

Sort of like “The Breakfast Club,” Shaw integrated the high school social order to fend for themselves during the disaster, with predictable results. In a flashback, nerds Dash and Assaf were shown to be Boy Scouts, which has as its motto “Be Prepared.” Dash especially won’t give up, and takes on the Gene Hackman role in “The Poseidon Adventure” in urging his fellow travelers toward redemption. The upper floors of the high school become stages of their journey, with the roof being “graduation.” The use of that metaphor was part of the film’s slyness.

Assaf is Trapped in ‘My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea’
Photo credit: GKIDS

The film is also a way to express how we all need to look below the surface of human beings, and that is highlighted through Susan Sarandon’s Lunch Lady Lorraine. Taking that concept to a superhero level, the lunch lady becomes the most prepared in the disaster, with martial arts skills and memories of her sea-faring husband. The character of Assaf is learning to use his new wings, after losing weight and taking up yoga. Even the popular girl, voiced with perfect inflection by Lena Dunham, learns about her own courage.

Dash Shaw does something with “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” that some animators have forgotten about – he created a fun cartoon. There are homages (I saw tributes to Peanuts cartoons, Japanese Anime, Archie comics, “The Simpsons” and the Boy Scout Manual) and just a spectacular illustrative spirit. We live and learn through a movie experience like this one.

”My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” continues its limited release in Chicago on April 5th at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 North Southport. See local listings for other theaters and showtimes. Featuring the voices of Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, John Cameron Mitchell and Susan Sarandon. Written and directed by Dash Shaw. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2017 Patrick McDonald,

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