Remembered as an episode of social injustice, anatomical transmutation, and existential wanderlust, it’s no wonder that high school is so often deemed a worthy candidate for the grandeur of the big screen. Traumatic enough in its own right, our culture’s teenage experience has given willingly to straightforward adaptations like The Last Picture Show, Dazed and Confused, and most everything by the patron saint of after-school angst, John Hughes. But that all-too-relatable adolescent turmoil may translate even better to film when it is milked for all it is worth and rendered on the empathetically apropos scale of life or death, such as it is in My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea—yes, that title is to be taken literally.
Debut director and screenwriter Dash Shaw’s generously garnished parable doesn’t take very long to live up to its titular metaphor, either. In no more than 10 minutes, the film bounds swiftly through its introduction to our self-appointed hero Dash (Jason Schwartzman, reviving the pubescent pomposity that first earned him indie audiences’ attention via Rushmore) and his meek best pal Assaf (Reggie Watts) and into their untimely falling out, and lands with stunning confidence at the precipice of the bona fide disaster picture premise that constitutes its remaining hour and change.
Like its Red Dawn and The Day After Tomorrow forebears, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea toggles its focus between the accumulating tangible threats (drowning, fires, sharks, riots, and Lord of the Flies-inspired survivalist tribes) and the emotional anchors of Dash, Asaaf, and the fellow journeymen they collect along the way. Melancholic school newspaper editor Verti (Maya Rudolph), compulsive class president Mary (Lena Dunham), and the sage and mysterious Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) round out the group.
A terrific degree of care is taken to ensure the sincerity of each avenue; the stakes of the unnamed high school’s tumble from the safety of its fragile coast are established by a surprising body count and some stirringly vivid illustrations of physical danger, notably the characters’ accelerating desperation for oxygen.
On the other side of the equation, Dash and company carry such gracious humanity (only Lunch Lady Lorraine is ever relegated to caricature, and even then is she not wanting for heart) at their kindest, cruelest, strangest, and funniest moments. And don’t be fooled by the prevalence of youthful ennui and bloodthirsty marine predators—the script is merry, sardonic, and clever at every appropriate opportunity.
Working in harmony with the soul and spectacle of the picture is its inventive animation. Adorably minimalistic one minute and strikingly surreal another, the visual artistry of My Entire High School shoulders much of the weight of its storytelling. Beneath this exercise in postmodern cartooning lies an eager genre deconstruction, beneath which you’ll find the heart of a bona fide human drama (and at the most dramatic chapter in human development). Shaw’s first feature approaches each of these elements not only with the utmost sincerity, but with the benefit of one another in mind, making for a recipe that turns out quite delectable—you’ll get the reference when you see it.
Rating: 4.5 burritos out of 5.
Images: Washington Square Films/Electric Chinoland/Low Spark Films
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist, and one of our nation’s brave teen angst survivors. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.