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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Review: MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA


In a cinematic landscape dominated by the likes of Pixar, Dreamworks, Disney, and Blue Sky, it can often feel like there's not a ton of room for experimentation with animation these days.  The same can be said for modern comics as well.  Sure, there are some indie works which cultivate their own fanbase, but nothing seems to crack the mold of the safe, solid money-makers.  But what if you combined the great things about an experimental indie comic with a wildly strange direction for an animated film?  It would probably look a lot like My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, a new film from indie comics writer/artist Dash Shaw.

Dash (Jason Schwartzman) is a high school sophomore and aspiring writer, who finds himself wanting to rise above his station while also dealing with his growing estrangement with best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts).  Typical high school drama gets interrupted, however, when an earthquake causes the entire school to begin sinking into the Pacific Ocean.  Dash, Assaf, and school newspaper editor Verti (Maya Rudolph) find themselves in a living William Golding novel as they attempt to make their way up each floor of their school, dodging sharks, broken elevators, and high school seniors in their bid for survival.

On its surface, My Entire High School sounds like an insane premise for a comic, even more so an animated film.  The above plot synopsis would probably not raise too many eyebrows, however, for those familiar with Dash Shaw's body of work.  With graphic novels like BodyWorld, Bottomless Belly Button, and the more recent Doctors, Shaw is pretty much known for crafting ludicrous plots occupied by down-to-Earth characters.  High School just may be Shaw's darkest work yet, and it is a story which deserved to be a film as the comics medium could not effectively portray some of the story's more pivotal scenes.  

Shaw is also known for his dark sense of humor, which is most assuredly present here.  Calling High School a black comedy would be the best bet, even if the film includes scenes of sharks tearing apart popular kids and quarterbacks being disemboweled on elevators.  If you're a fan of the dry wit of Wes Anderson, you'll probably find yourself chuckling all the way through High School, although that could just be because of the presence of Schwartzman.  That being said, while High School is definitely a comedy, its laughs are few and far between, with most of the gags getting a smile or a small chuckle.  In the moments where the film really embraces the hilarity of its premise, it gets so close to being the type of comedy you'd expect, but it often drops these moments to develop the characters in ways that are not only predictable, but make the plot stagnate for all too long periods of time.

Pacing seems to be the key issue with High School.  Though the film clocks in at a measly 75 minutes, it feels a good 45 minutes to an hour longer.  In fact, if it weren't for the fun plot, one really great character, and the occasional eye-popping visual, it would be so easy to just turn off this film 20 minutes in and never bother to finish.  Poor pacing is also coupled with characters that mostly feel like wet noodles as they meander through what should be an exciting concept.  Dash and Assaf are decent enough characters, but Shaw just doesn't do much to make them unique.  This is especially the case with Verti.  Verti's budding romance with Assaf leads to her only fascinating moments, making her a character that becomes almost downright insufferable when things get serious.  While the trio's desire to write a book about their experience, with Verti wanting to only edit it, makes for some fun character moments, the movie makes it so very hard to care by the end.  

Let's talk about the animation as this is probably where the film makes itself stand out even more than the plot.  High School is drawn in a style which would probably not appeal to a mass audience, but is perfectly in line with Dash Shaw's artwork in his comics.  The film at first feels like a fun blend of Daria and Tex Avery, especially when it introduces some of its side characters.  Live action shots are occasionally interspersed with the animation, making some of the effect of the school sinking pretty engaging.  At times the characters can be stagnant, making one feel like they're watching a motion comic over a film.  When movement is fully utilized, though, it is done quite well.  There is a fight scene in particular done in the style of side-scrolling fighting games that is not only a highlight from an animation standpoint, but is easily the funniest part of the entire movie.  If High School ever garners a cult following, it will be undoubtedly due to Dash Shaw's unique art style.  As a fan of his comics, it was fun to see in action, even if it did sometimes feel like it was not used to its full potential.

Looking at the cast for this film, one would think the performances end up being better than they are.  Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, and Maya Rudolph are all perfectly okay in their respective roles, but it's nothing to write home about.  Lena Dunham fairs a bit better as class president Mary, but it still feels like everyone binge-watched Daria beforehand and wanted to emulate that performance. Susan Sarandon utterly makes this film.  If it weren't for her impeccable performance as Lunch Lady Lorraine, it would be very hard to recommend this film to many.  While much of Lorraine's standout role as a character is probably due to Shaw's writing, it just doesn't feel like she would be as memorable if Sarandon wasn't there providing more subtlety and nuance than one would expect.  It would be so easy for Lorraine to be done in an over-the-top manner, but Sarandon strikes all the right notes, vocally.  It would be great to see her do more animated roles.

On its surface, no pun intended, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea seems like it would be a fun, quirky film.  There are genuine moments where the silly premise, unique animation, and decent voice work align perfectly.  Unfortunately, those moments just don't happen as much as one could hope, especially given the limited run time.  While High School doesn't make one feel like Dash Shaw should stick to comics, it does make one question if maybe he should only write any future animated endeavors.  If nothing else, the film at least attempts to stand out among the crowd in its genre.  This movie isn't going to be for everyone, but it will probably find an audience.  Hopefully they are able to stay awake through it all. 


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