As its unwieldy title suggests, “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is much more than your average teen disaster movie. Every image in graphic novelist Dash Shaw’s animated feature delivers a dizzying, evocative reflection of restless youth. At the same time, it remains grounded in a familiar world of geeky teens, smarmy upperclassmen and disgruntled school administrators. As the archetypes swirl around the inane plot, the movie develops an intimate quality that’s not unlike sifting through the scrapbook of an exuberant young mind.
Shaw’s background in alternative comics reflects a jagged storytelling approach that mixes cheeky humor with serious undertones; he transplants that sensibility to cinematic form with this freewheeling odyssey, which unfolds in a spectacular collision of styles. Surreal developments collide with genuine attitudes about the travails of growing up, while the visual approach fuses lively watercolors with flowing black ink, silhouetted figures and paper cutouts into a collage of personal expression.
“High School” reveals the saga of a wayward high school newspaper editor tellingly named Dash (voiced by a dry Jason Schwartzman) and his estranged pal Assaf (Reggie Watts), whose friendship is imperiled early on. Dash, a geeky romantic with an absurd fixation on flowery writing (“I like turgid prose,” he asserts), has annoyed Assaf to the point that he forms an alliance with fellow newspaper writer Verti (Maya Rudolph), a new romantic interest. Their uneven chemistry tears the publication apart in a matter of minutes (“We’ve lost touch with the streets!”) and personal vendettas make their way into print. Ostracized, Dash uncovers his biggest scoop of all — that the school’s foundation hasn’t been properly designed for a disaster — just when it strikes. A sudden earthquake sends the entire building careening into the waves, and in the ensuing carnage, Dash and his friends must work through their anxieties to survive one prolonged metaphor for the next phase of their lives. Dash puts it bluntly: “We must make our way to the senior floor and then graduate — to the roof!”
Fortunately, “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” avoids the trappings of its heavy-handed symbolism through the sheer energy and invention that carries it along. As the movie keeps shifting from one zany image to the next, its jiggly lines epitomize the anxious mindset on display. Shaw’s script, meanwhile, juggles a series of droll characterizations that hold their own.
The stakes keep on rising on multiple fronts: Dash, Assaf and Verti swim through shark-infested locker halls and navigate perilous electrical cords while talking through their problems and aspirations. They’re joined by some charmingly off-beat supporting roles, including moody gymnast Mary (Lena Dunham, smarmy as usual) and war-torn hero Lunch Lady Lorrain (Susan Sarandon). Not every moment stimulates a belly laugh, but that’s part of the point. “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is more thoughtful than meets the eye, a cockeyed ode to what it feels like when nobody takes you seriously.
Co-produced by filmmaker Craig Zobel (“Compliance”), the movie reflects some of the discursive humor found in the defunct web series “Homestar Runner,” which Zobel helped create — not to mention the innumerable outlandish series that later took off on Adult Swim. But the complexity of Shaw’s handmade animation points to a deeper conceit. While the story has been compared to the John Hughes school of awkward teen experiences, Dash’s strange journey taps into a kind of lopsided way of seeing the world.
The movie doesn’t quite reach for the level of depth found in the cartoonist’s brilliant graphic novel “Bottomless Belly Button,” a darkly humorous look at one family struggling through a divorce. In “High School,” the relationships between Dash and his various friends and enemies are more like goofy placeholders for real bonds. These erratic characterizations speak to the movie’s pointed use of exaggeration. Just as “High School” looks like teen ephemera, the writing follows suit, with cutesy asides and crass one-liners that fall below the energetic artwork. Still, Shaw maintains a thrilling pace in which anything can happen, and often does: Jellyfish! Explosions! Spontaneous flight! Evil jocks ruled by an obnoxious football star voiced by John Cameron Mitchell! The movie’s biggest gamble is its carefree plot.
Combing the twitchy look with storytelling that follows suit, “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is by far the most original animated movie of the year, or any other in recent memory. While Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa” used its own delicate approach to represent one man’s alienated state, “High School” barely even bothers with narrative consistency in its quest to achieve a vivid representation of its protagonist’s experiences. A third act finale, as the survivors make a desperate dash for the exist, goes on for so long that it pitches the whole experience into the realm of avant garde, with coherent images morphing into strobing colors and abstract shapes. (The movie justifiably opens with an epileptic seizure warning.)
As “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” remains within the confines of its skewed universe, it adheres to a dreamlike logic that has a universal appeal. Shaw turns the coming-of-age story on its ear by sticking to the realm of fantasy, suggesting that it’s sometimes easier to just keep dreaming than to consider the possibility of growing up.
“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.