On coloring outside the lines, apocalyptic tribalism, and teenage life as an emotional abstraction
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea Gkids
Director: Dash Shaw
Screenplay: Dash Shaw
Starring: The voices of Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon, Alex Karpovsky, John Cameron Mitchell and Thomas Jay Ryan
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 15 minutes / 2.35:1
(out of four)
Desperate as its climb toward maturity and adulthood may be, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea still proudly colors outside the lines - literally - like an act of defiant youth.
Those lines - thick and Sharpie-black - give shape to characters and objects, but are incapable of dictating anything else. (Nor would writer/director Dash Shaw want them to.) Characters may be clearly drawn, but the fluid animated canvas behind them - in, on, around them - has ideas of its own. Colors bleed over the edges of clothing; skin tones split sharply and abruptly; the palette almost changes its mind at will, like A Scanner Darkly's scramble suits. Colors and textures blend and smudge and overlap, a bustling abstraction that's also, strangely, emotionally intuitive. An appropriately turbulent moment-to-moment existence that shifts with the capricious moods of its insecure American teenagers - not in a rigid, overly obvious way (like someone's cheeks turning rosy in embarrassment), but with ungoverned impulses. Inks and paints, crayon and pencil, competing and then fusing together into a vibrantly expressive world of impassioned noise and chaos. Multicolored silhouettes; shafts of light and color crisscrossing each other. The way it all mixes, the frame itself is practically a drop cloth, catching all the splattered drips and extracts left over from a day of experimentation.
Or, as the case may be, six years of it. My Entire High School's closing credits include the detail that the film was animated from 2010 to 2016. The amount of work is evident; Jane Samborski and her animation team cram every cel with indelible ideas and details; in its colors, the effect is vaguely reminiscent of the stenciling of early silents from the turn of the 20th Century. Like its not-quite-adult characters, the film is in a constant process of figuring itself out - trying this look, trying that. Moods swing and directions reverse and rules are broken on whims and cryptic emotional currents. Our hero Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) is similarly unruly, facing constant criticism for his overly colorful writing style that he wields like a weapon from the ramshackle war room of the school's weekly newspaper.
Like so many other stories about outsiders - particularly stories set within volatile self-contained universes like high school - this one's point of view is from the creative types who don't get invited to the cool parties, get pushed around by jocks and entitled overachievers, and end up finding their niche in the sanctuaries of newsrooms, stages and rehearsal rooms. In this regard - its segmented high-school landscape and the archetypes that populate it - there's nothing especially revealing or insightful about Sinking. It reiterates exceedingly common teen dynamics with little variation from what you'd expect. On a script level, what sets it apart is a dry, almost hesitant sense of humor that even crosses the line into genuine (but hilarious) meanness; at times you get the sense, especially in scenes of amusingly explicit violence, that the filmmakers are hashing out some lingering adolescent resentments. (And why not? Go for it!) But the real saving grace from its overly conventional iteration of high school is, again, the visual aesthetic, which evokes in its animation what Shaw can't otherwise get across in his more direct characterizations and commentaries. Samborski gets into the muck of these characters' psyches - and the collective psyche of this sequestered teenage world - as they figure out who they are, where they belong and what they're capable of. The latter is a particularly relevant question given that, true to the title, their building is quite literally sinking into the (shark-infested) sea, thanks to an unscrupulous principal who neglected to get the place up to code.
Surviving the destruction taking place around them at all times is of equal - but no greater - importance than reconciling their emotional baggage. In Dash's case, it's the fact that his best friend and longtime writing partner, Assaf (Reggie Watts), has decided to try going solo for awhile ("creative differences") while at the same time stumbling into the early stages of a relationship with the newspaper editor, Verti (Maya Rudolph), a pairing that suddenly leaves Dash feeling like a third wheel. The foundation of that friendship has begun to crumble just as the building's has done the same, with Dash's reaction to this sudden change of friendship status - a petulant, gossipy "exposé" published in the most recent issue of the paper - practically serving as the catalyst for the situation everyone finds themselves in.
In a sense, it's all for the best, as their quest for survival forces them to tenuously team up with presumptive enemies like the abundantly popular Mary (Lena Dunham) - who, initially at least, is practically disgusted to even be in the presence of the uncool kids. Her rude awakening comes when she discovers that her hangers-on and sycophants not only aren't as loyal as she expected, but also aren't nearly as pragmatic or courageous - choosing to stay behind in the cafeteria and hope for rescue while Mary and her new, temporary allies make a proactive attempt at their (and others') salvation.
This kind of subcultural fence-mending doesn't apply to everyone, of course - our heroes still face plenty of opposition from groups that want nothing to do with them. For some, the apocalyptic situation at hand has only made them more tribal. But enough allies, fittingly, come from unexpected places - namely conspiratorial stoner Drake (Alex Karpovsky) and Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon), whose ungodly super-strength and martial-arts expertise get the gang out of a few tight spots. The blending of cliques, personalities and even generations in the core group of characters fits the story nicely but is even better as a personification of the film's aesthetic - competing impulses whose very conflict and messy cohabitation creates a vivid, loosely coherent dynamic all its own. My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea may not, on its most basic terms, have a whole lot more (if anything) to say about the high-school battlefield that hasn't been said for decades already, by movies both better and worse. It does, however, find a much more memorable way of expressing it than do most movies of its genre, thus reinventing those old-hat ideas as more organic and intimate ones. I can't say enough about Samborski's animation. It embodies not only the spirit of the story's creatively feral outcasts but the complicated dynamics of civilization itself. This particular civilization may be sinking into the sea - and its inhabitants may be graduating out of it - but life's variations and contrasts and brilliant messes aren't going anywhere.