Graphic novelist Dash Shaw’s debut feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, is an Irwin Allen-style catastrophe parable that doubles as a maturation tale for the artist as a young blowhard (voiced by Jason Schwartzman). With the film, Shaw creates a self-effacing sketch of his adolescent self that’s comparable to Bill Watterson’s Calvin on his most obnoxious days, a worthy upgrade of such teenage man-children as Archie Andrews and Henry Aldrich. The whole thing buzzes with hand-drawn creativity that’s precious in both the pop-cultural and material senses: Schwartzman’s performance is of a piece with his work in Wes Anderson’s films, while Shaw’s animations snap from fearlessly cursory scribbles to seamless, fluid spurts of movement—drawing influence from the aggro-modernist “limited animation” of 1960s and ’70s animes.
In the film, Dash finds himself at odds with his best friend, Assaf (Reggie Watts), and Verti (Maya Rudolph), co-editor at the high school newspaper, after they chastise him for his purple prose. About his classmates’ indifference to the paper’s latest issue, Dash simpers, “They don’t respect it because it’s free!”—to which Verti replies, coldly, “No. They just don’t like us.” (The scenario affords a number of jokes that may also serve as sly referendums on the I’m-the-artist-here-bub hubris invited by a project such as this under typical Indiewood circumstances.) After spreading unbelievably nasty rumors about Assaf in a rogue issue, Dash is kicked off the paper, taking revenge—and seeking validation—by uncovering a scoop about the school being below evacuation code. No sooner does he take this information public than a terrible earthquake strikes the California coast.
Dash, Assaf, and Verti ’s upward escape through the floors of their high school pulls the story further away from temporal plausibility; rather than flattening pre-established boundaries, the building’s collapse creates new space with which Shaw’s pen can run wild. Whether it’s toward the school administration or the fundamentals of on-screen time and space, a skepticism of authority runs through the film; even when people are drowning and being burned alive, the doodle-sketchiness of the animation keeps reality at a defiantly elastic remove. There’s freedom in this aesthetic: My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea’s lack of slickness is one of several ways in which Shaw charmingly betrays cognizance of his forebears (which would appear to include Gary Panter, Adrian Tomine, and Adult Swim) without sweating the differences. The high school’s background ensemble even features cameos from knock-off versions of other comic characters, and Dash himself forms an unmistakable Charlie Brown pout in a moment of vexation.
Seen in proper big-screen context, the film is a winning testimony to what can be done on a low budget well spent: Shaw keeps the eye stimulated from one pictographic punchline to the next, with moments of real beauty along the way. One late passage involving a narrow escape shaft rendered in charcoal black includes a conversation between two woodcut-looking silhouettes, while the film’s extreme close-ups as minimal as a facial expression drawn in thick black drawn lines, matted on top of blurring acrylic colors.
If this bonanza of lo-fi ingenuity has any downside, maybe it’s that the quick-hitting visuals will linger longer in memory than the corresponding dialogue. But the supporting cast, which includes John Cameron Mitchell, Lena Dunham, and Susan Sarandon, give each character their own anchoring energy, freeing Shaw’s line work to bend or break as each visual gag sees fit. This is a work that refuses to take itself too seriously—a paradigm confirmed at the end when Dash and his friends have published a memoir of their survival, to middling reviews from the New York Times. Shaw perkily counter-offers that “Next time, I’ll just water it down and so it’s shitty and more popular!”