Disaster movies typically enjoy a resurgence during periods of national or international crisis, providing escapism through scenarios that make real-life calamity seem comparatively manageable. With protracted scenes of destruction and human suffering as their money shots, these films are universal in appeal—producing Everyperson heroes from a collection of diverse, if familiar, characters who must bury their differences and cooperate in order to survive.
The animated indie My Entire High School is Sinking into the Sea, a project supported by the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program, arrives at a time when, well, a lot of things appear potentially disastrous. The seismic event that was the recent U.S. presidential election continues to slap tidal waves of angst against shores near and far. And one of its controversial byproducts, the appointment to U.S. Secretary of Education of billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos—she’s evidently cool with keeping guns on campus to protect against bears and has been branded “anti-public school” by some media—suggests that our very system of learning is teetering on a precipice.
“The feature filmmaking debut of graphic novelist Dash Shaw delivers a trippy mosaic of mixed media mayhem that’s enough to garner a PG-13 rating.”
Encapsulating that last circumstance figuratively and literally, My Entire High School is Sinking into the Sea turns the sentiment “School sucks so hard”—expressed early on by the film’s protagonist, Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), an otherwise ambitious sophomore journalist at Tides High School—into a hellish, blackly comic apocalypse Carrie White would envy.
Dash and his pal Assaf (Reggie Watts) are the would-be star writing team on the school newspaper, caught between social and aspirational yearnings while also coping with the ostensible fact that print is dead. The principal (Thomas Jay Ryan), a one-eyed jackass with a secret, offers them zero encouragement. “There’s not much to write about at Tides High,” he admonishes the duo, who’ve taken to penning readership-boosting tabloid stories on haunted locker rooms and postadolescent erectile dysfunction. “We’re a peaceful, uneventful place.”
That begins to change when school newspaper editor Verti (Maya Rudolph) moves in romantically on Assaf, threatening his bond with Dash. With nothing to do but to pursue his own reporter’s instincts, Dash discovers some scary facts about the seaside institution, including the questionable construction of a new rooftop auditorium and a fault line beneath the foundation—and almost immediately, disaster strikes. The main players emerge from the chaos and, along with Tides High popular girl Mary (Lena Dunham), a gruff, tough, life lesson-serving lunch lady named Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) and a few others, join uneasily to find their way out.
“…fiery explosions, cultish cliques and spectacular electrocutions. Even sharks.”
The feature filmmaking debut of graphic novelist Dash Shaw (Bottomless Belly Button, New School), My Entire High School is Sinking into the Sea delivers a trippy mosaic of mixed media mayhem that’s enough to garner a PG-13 rating. The visuals rendered by Shaw, lead animator Jane Samborski and their crew—enjoying an artistic freedom impossible in the creation of realistic stunts and effects—make this the genre’s most stylish parody ever. At times, though, the eye candy feels stretched and fails to hit the right dramatic notes. And as far as high school satire goes, the material is pretty average save for sporadically funny and truthful observations.
The 75-minute tale excels at spoofing the kind of overkill for which disaster movies are known; exaggeration, in fact, becomes a self-reflexive theme. While The Poseidon Adventure is the film’s go-to formula classic for much of its structure and key plot turns, its references to other genre efforts pile up like the student casualties. There’s a bit of building code chicanery lifted from The Towering Inferno and a ticking-time bomb personality shift or two borrowed from Earthquake, as well as a scene of flood-fleeing rats straight out of James Cameron’s Titanic.
Flashbacks and anecdotal asides really help color-in the characters. And in the best genre tradition, My Entire High School is Sinking into the Sea challenges them with all manner of life-threatening, willpower-testing obstacles: rising water, the heartbreak of acne, collapsing stairwells, teen weight issues, fiery explosions, cultish cliques and spectacular electrocutions. Even sharks.
But no grizzlies.
My Entire High School is Sinking into the Sea (2016) Written and directed by Dash Shaw. Starring the voices of Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Susan Sarandon, Thomas Jay Ryan
7 out of 10