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Regardless of whether you know who Dash Shaw is or what you think of the graphic novelist’s first feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, you gotta admit one thing: Casting Susan Sarandon as the voice of a burly lunch lady was genius. You’ll recognize a few voices in this trippily animated farce, particularly Jason Schwartzman as Dash—as in Dash Shaw—the film’s flip protagonist. He’s a writer for the school newspaper and the one who finds a cover-up involving the construction that’s going on at his seaside California high school. A new auditorium is being built, but is the four-story structure sound?
Um, spoiler alert: Don’t read the title.
Dash makes his discovery after turning on his best friend, Assah (Reggie Watts), when he starts getting a little too friendly with the paper’s editor, Verti (Maya Rudolph). Dash’s antics are soon documented on his permanent record. And when he sifts through the school’s file dungeon to edit that record, he comes across a forged signature that gave the go-ahead for the auditorium work. The real building inspector, however, declared the school unfit to survive an earthquake, a fact that Principal Grimm (Thomas Jay Ryan) chose to ignore.
My Entire High School is essentially a comic disaster flick. It’s not long after Dash tries to warn people that the school starts rumbling and goes all Poseidon, with blood, bones, and bodies with x’d-out eyes immediately turning up. (The building not only floods as it sinks, but for some reason, catches fire.) And as anyone who’s seen a disaster movie knows, only a core group of characters can survive. Among these in this case are Dash, Assaf, Verti, Lunch Lady Lorraine, and Mary (Lena Dunham, the most recognizable and grating voice of them all). They also come across a smattering of other struggling survivors, including the principal and a dirtbag senior named Drake (Alex Karpovsky).
Despite the rather constant stream of jokes—ranging from erudite (“I like turgid prose”) to Beavis and Butt-Head-esque (“He said, ‘Grab our pole’”)—Shaw infuses his story with a fair amount of tension as our heroes brave the elements, sometimes just barely. Much more impressive than the script, though, is the animation: bright, layered, sometimes gory, and often kaleidoscopic. (In fact, there’s a warning at the beginning of the film for photosensitive epileptics regarding its strobe-like effects.) It looks like Shaw occasionally slips in something real, too.
Shaw pays homage to various films, TV shows, and videogames, including The Poseidon Adventure, Scooby Doo, and Peanuts. (For the games, you’re on your own.) Basically, the movie is as much or as little as you care to make it. During a discussion about, of all things, book blurbs, Drake comes out as against them, with an opinion that applies to My Entire High School as well: “Make up your own minds. People are such sheep.”
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema