A handmade animated feature is primitively beautiful to look at but also perilously twee: an absurdist teen hipster disaster film.
It’s part of the stylized nature of animated movies to have clean popping titles. “Toy Story” is the perfect thing to call an animated film; so is “Spirited Away” or “Dumbo” or “Sausage Party.” “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea,” on the other hand, is not. It’s a torturously whimsical title, one you’re tired of by the time you reach the end of it. (And if you try to remember it moments later, you won’t.) The annoyance factor of “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” extends to the animation, which is remorselessly clever and original yet still oddly uninvolving; it’s like being buried in a dump truck’s worth of antic indie drollery. The characters, who look like versions of the old MTV heroine Daria, are rendered in simple thick outlines that vibrate, with each frame, in a deliberately herky-jerky, non-matchy-matchy way, as if to emphasize what an artisanal object the movie is. One need look no further than the films of Bill Plympton to know that hand-drawing an entire feature is an arduously admirable and pleasing thing to do. Yet the style of “My Entire High School” never lets you forget you’re watching a product of loving hipster labor. It’s lo-fi gone in-your-face.
The movie starts off promisingly, as a kind of autobiographical millennial graphic-novel John Hughes movie, featuring a hero named Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), a reflexively downbeat and misanthropic sophomore high-school journalist — no one likes him, and they’re right not to, because he’s a real pill — who shares a name with the film’s writer-director, Dash Shaw. It’s another pseudo-cool trope: “Look, my on-screen surrogate is so not a nice guy!” But once you get past Dash’s abrasiveness, you realize that everyone in the movie talks in pretty much the same acerbic boho pensées. They’re delivered by a cast of hip luminaries, including Lena Dunham, John Cameron Mitchell, Maya Rudolph, and Alex Karpovsky, in a way that puts the “dead” in “deadpan.” “I’m a virgin too – sort of!” “Silence — order in the food court!” “Come on, there’s no point in dying now — we’ve got a first draft to write!” “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” feels like a first draft, the one that needed to be written before the second draft added flesh and blood.
The best thing about the movie, and the reason it has been shown in Toronto on an IMAX screen, is its colorful patchwork of mixed-media backgrounds. They’re scrawled in an infectious low-budget Crayola way, and they’re constant eclectic eye candy; the movie is primitively beautiful to look at. If I were launching an animated feature, I’d hire Dash Shaw and his lead animator, Jane Samborski, in a minute to do the backgrounds. It’s their foregrounding that needs work. Everything that makes an animated movie not just aesthetic but involving…this one doesn’t have.
What it does have is an absurdist disaster plot: After 20 minutes there’s an earthquake, and the high school, with 900 students in it, does indeed sink into the sea, or at least get carried out to sea, where it floats and is gradually pulled under like a shipwreck. Says one wag: “We have to move up to the senior floor, and then graduate…to the roof!” No, even the prospect of drowning doesn’t cut down on the strained preciousness. But with everyone fighting to stay alive, notes of disturbance creep in: There are fistfights, a 30-second-long Technicolor yawn, and water-bloated teenage corpses. “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is like Wes Anderson’s “Ghost World” crossed with “The Poseidon Adventure.” It’s a paradox: a light-spirited, fast-moving 72-minute endurance test. It should be shown — minus the soundtrack — in a never-ending loop in a coffee bar in Portland, where it could be enjoyed as the revolutionary wallpaper it is.