A title as daringly long, loony and precise as “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is a hard promise to fulfill. Too hard, it turns out, for animator Dash Shaw, whose film doesn’t plumb the depths of adolescent emotions and high-school politics so much as skims the surface in a psychedelic dinghy.
The film’s title is a fate devoutly to be wished for many high school students, especially the likes of Dash (Jason Schwartzman), Assaf (Reggie Watts) and Verti (Maya Rudolph). As sophomore journalists for the school’s newspaper, they occupy the lower rungs of the social hierarchy. While Assaf and Verti awkwardly flirt with a budding attraction to one another, Dash feels unmoored and abandoned by his best bud.
Bored with reality, Dash dreams up scoops in purple prose, fabricating a story about a haunted locker room. That adolescent wish for something larger than life to shake up the status quo comes true in a literal way when Dash, trying to one-up Assaf in investigative reporting, discovers that the cliffside school’s structure does not meet California’s earthquake code — just before an earthquake sends the school plunging into the raging sea, all 900 students trapped inside.
The film then transforms into a “Poseidon Adventure”-esque survival tale set in a steadily sinking school, with the low-level sophomores working their way up to the senior strata to avoid drowning. The metaphors are, charitably speaking, obvious. More interesting is the crudely textured animation. Brush strokes, paint drippings and pencil scratchings make for a rough but striking and vibrant sensory experience. During moments of duress the animation gets psychedelically non-literal; it feels like being stuck inside a lava lamp.
It’s neat, but it doesn’t work in place of memorable characters, whose trials and tribulations are standard high-school fare. Not that those familiar agonies aren’t still worth exploring — for those for whom high school was a struggle, there will always be joy in seeing jocks splattered and cheerleaders eviscerated by sharks. But it’s better to root for something than simply against, and whatever charisma these characters possess is owed entirely to the innate charm of the actors voicing them.
“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is only 75 minutes long, barely clearing the bar for a feature-length film, but even then it feels like its treading water. That glorious title turns out to be the meatiest part of an otherwise bare bone.
NOTE: Director Dash Shaw will answer questions after the 7 p.m. screening and introduce the 9:30 p.m. screening Friday at the Music Box.
Barbara VanDenburgh, USA TODAY Network★★
GKids presents a film written and directed by Dash Shaw. Rated PG-13 (for some images of peril, sexual references and drug material). Running time: 75 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.