Let me begin by attempting to describe Dash Shaw's debut feature film, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. On its most basic level, the film is a teenage dramatic rendition of The Poseidon Adventure, as a California high school falls into the sea after faulty maintenance and some earthquakes, the whole high school tumbles and floods in the same way the cruise liner once did way back in the seventies. After such an initial assessment, High School acts like a cynically sarcastic Mad Max, where anarchy and brute force trump rationality. Eventually, peeling off the layers of prickly exaggeration, there is the conceptual abstract layer that, dare I say it...I will say it, resembles 2001: A Space Odyssey if Kubrick's film focused on coming of age. Though, once you thinking about it, isn't human evolution another form of coming of age?
Nevermind that, let us return to Shaw's film.
I open up my reflection in such a way because there is a level of perplexity exuded in this spectacle that one might need to step back and organize thoughts before making any claim. In addition, it is also to sort of endorse the coupling of a absurd allegory with what seems like randomly neurotic animation. For a film about teenage angst, or the struggle to come to terms with identity in an environment of volcanic pressure like a high school, an animated neurosis, where Shaw and lead animator (and wife) Jane Samborski conjure up a world on edge. Even in the character design, where the lining seems to vibrate erratically depending on what sort of action is taking place, suggest individuals as balls of fear and anxiety.
And there is more to talk about on the art direction, the way in which Shaw and Samborski stich together different styles and, in some instances, different media. Ultimately Frankensteinian, what culminates if grotesquely organic, revealing all the worse traits of a high school experience, thrown into a cauldron of satirical scrutiny, and manufactured into a surprisingly tender acceptance of the uncertain complexity that wrought many people's experience in growing up. Volatile animation reflection the volatile point of introspection and internal decision-making on who you are and who you want to be.
Shaw implants himself into the narrative as an ignorant writer for a school paper no one cares about. His best friend and co-writer, Assaf, sees to it that his prose never unhinges into the ridiculous, but begins to fall for their editor, Verti, which causes a rift in the friendship. After a couple of misadventures, it is soon when the high school breaks from from its earthly roots and tumbles into the stormy seas that Dash must put his troubles behind and work with those he loathes to survive. Again, without giving too much away, much of what I absorbed in this ludicrous plot is allegorical. Anyone with a bad experience or even an uncomfortable experience in high school could relate to the savagery that permeates within the locker-flanked halls. There are moments of stark violence or intense imagery that provide some sort of shock, if not a loud chuckle, because Shaw does a pretty good job at balancing satire with scathe, albeit with some missteps. Much of those missteps come with some odd choices of visual and aural editing that makes some of the action and blocking confusing, thereby risking subduing a scene's power.
And the plot, as zany as it is, does trip on surprisingly safe tropes of teenage dramas which audiences would make a choice as to take or leave it in regards to investment. Those that leave it will most likely find the aesthetics unappealing in its strangeness. Those that do end up taking it may not be entirely satisfied but will still find so wholesome characters all facing their own youthful struggles. The crux of the main characters, though, has to be Lorrane the Lunch lady, voiced by a sagacious-sounding Susan Sarandon (sorry for all the 's's'), an honorable woman whose strength is unbounded by the assumptions many students may have of her and her vocation. That, and many of the characters' motivations seem to ring true and thoughtful as to why they think the way they think so, in an effort to understand the chaos of growing older, these moments of quiet and hushed weirdness, are refreshing and effective.
Lastly, there is something to be said about the film's most absurd moments, the reason why I would even mention Kubrick earlier. There is this sense of mysterious or bizarre that only the cornucopia of visuals can respect. In some moments, particularly during the climax, we leave the plot behind and venture off into this textual universe of isolation and fright. The colorful patterns and psychotropic superimpositions heighten this sense of disorientation at the molecular level, playfully imagining a mindscape unsure and afraid of what others think. These moments are what seemed to be most personal for the filmmaker but, in some ways, in all of their abstract glory, universal when projected in a theatre. An ambition here to leave the somewhat predictable plot for something far more confusing and possibly unsatisfying is welcoming in an age with many animations that are too nice and neat.
Yes, high school can suck, it can eat you alive...or electrocute you...or slap you silly...it can do a lot of things. Shaw succeeds in not pulling any punches. Maybe he did experience them or maybe he didn't, but he taps into the tormenting positions many teenagers put themselves in in the name of acceptance. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is wish-fulfilling. Dash Shaw pulls the strings with a force and manner of his choosing. But there is enough here for sympathy, despite its shortcomings.