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My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea
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by Jay Seaver

"Right on the line between the good and bad sorts of silliness."
4 stars

"My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea" is very much not for every taste - it's got a style of art and animation that looks primitive, hipster adults playing high-school sophomores and a bunch of self-referential gags. On the other hand, it tends to work because it's got a teenager's honest stumbling excitement of creating something without playing by the established rules; writer/director Dash Shaw will get an idea and throw it in there when asking himself why the heck not doesn't yield an obvious reason to stop, but not get so self-satisfied that he strings it out past the point of actually being funny.

"Dash Shaw" is also the name of the film's main character (voice of Jason Schwartzman), half of a writing team on the Tides High school paper with best friend Assaf (voice of Reggie Watts). The editor, Verti (voice of Maya Rudolph) is more taken with Assaf, and the bitter things he puts in the paper about the pair wind up leading to a mark on his Permanent Record. Sneaking into the school records room to remove the document, he and cheerleader/student councilor Mary (voice of Lena Dunham) - there to steal back her confiscated cell phone - discover that Principal Grimm (voice of Thomas Jay Ryan) have faked the approvals for the new rooftop auditorium, which is apparently extremely unsafe, especially with the school located at the end of a peninsula over a fault line.

I'm not sure whether I want to give Shaw too much credit for imagining high school as a structure where you must climb to the top - Tides High has each class on a separate floor, freshmen on the bottom - avoiding sharks that want to pull you under and apart before being airlifted out, leaving with the ability to write a story about how you survived. That's there, sure, and maybe it only seems like happenstance because he makes the rest of the film seem very casual, with the jokes either tending toward the silly or deflating such pretense. It winds up putting the film on the sweet spot of the range between high school being intensely melodramatic and just high school, self-aware but not smirking at how dumb this all seems in retrospect.

It's goofy as heck, to be sure: Shaw delivers a string of little jokes with a straight face, from the names of the school to that of the local Japanese restaurant, with funny bits of dialogue like the one where Verti suggests Assaf review it for the paper but bring her because eating alone is a food-critic giveaway. As the film goes on and the plot dictates more dire situations, the deadpan comedy gets bloodier, but Shaw is good at doing outrageous humor without being completely mean-spirited, not taking "here's something big and wacky" and detailing how it would really work until it's no longer fun.

On top of that, there's a fun soundtrack, and the willingness to leap into abstract, extra-stylized animation keeps things from ever getting boring. There's a sketchy, crayon-drawn look to the figure-work, sometimes looking like it was done by kids even younger than the high-school characters, but the animation never winds up jerky or otherwise limited, although sometimes Shaw's rough style doesn't serve something like an action scene very well. It's the trippy coloring that keeps things lively, as Shawn and his team go for dizzy-making displays with spirals and checkerboards, characters which are just presented as outlines over colorful backgrounds, and a general feeling of constant motion and change even during scenes that are just two people talking.

The voicework isn't bad during those scenes, although the actors in the cast are not, by and large, people with distinctive or especially expressive voices, at least as Shaw uses them here. Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Lena Dunham and Maya Rudolph are good at deadpan material and do okay at capturing the vibe of kids in their mid-teens but they seldom have moments that work in large part because of their delivery the way that Susan Sarandon does as the lunch lady. Like using a disaster movie as a metaphor for high school, it's probably for the best that the movie isn't full of showy voice acting, but it can sometimes seem like the main voices are kind of bland.

That's a complaint that might be leveled against the movie in several areas if it doesn't click with someone - it can seem arch, jokey for an adventure but not really incisive enough for a black comedy. If it does click, though, it will come off as playful, with its makers willing to follow their jokes but not past the point where they work. I like it, but can easily see where some viewers won't be down for its brand of absurdity.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=30832&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/25/17 03:00:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2016 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 New York Film Festival For more in the 2016 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2016 AFI Festival series, click here.

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USA
  14-Apr-2017 (PG-13)

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