2016 New York Film Festival: Independent animation can be a tricky thing to pull off. It can either come off as a singular vision or potentially indulgent and lacking in a reason for existence. “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is sort of caught in between, a bit of indie handmade animation that only sporadically proves of interest. Filmmaker Dash Shaw has a fascinating concept to play with here, but it’s perhaps too playful for its own good. Filled with a hipster and twee sensibility, it just never feels substantial at all. Animation doesn’t have to always be disposable, and it doesn’t need to be unnecessarily heavy either, but being caught in between is rough. “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” consistently feels caught in this purgatory, ultimately cursing it and preventing success.
At times “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is a unique hybrid vision from an intriguing filmmaker. Other times, it plays like a not-quite-clever-enough riff on “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno.” This could have been ridiculously fun, or it could have been a great homage, but it’s neither. Shaw almost stubbornly refuses to commit to a consistent tone. A too mellow voice cast doesn’t help matters either. There are elements of a really fun movie here, but too often this winds up being a slog. It’s interesting to look at, but that just isn’t enough.
The setup is that of a traditional high school story. Dash (voice of Jason Schwartzman) is a sophomore who writes for the school paper and fancies himself above it all. His writing partner and friend (voice of Reggie Watts) has eyes for their editor (voice of Maya Rudolph), which begins to drive a wedge between them. It comes to a forefront when Dash writes a scathing article that’s a takedown of them both. That gets a reprimand from the principal and an ejection from the paper. At his lowest, Dash is beside himself, though he will have to suck it up in short order. You see, a new addition to the school has put the whole structure in danger.
From there, the disaster element enters into the plot, as is necessary in a barely 70 minute feature. The danger Dash suspects comes to fruition when an earthquake sends the school into the ocean. Dash, along with his friend and editor, teams with a class president candidate (voice of Lena Dunham) and a lunch lady (voice of Susan Sarandon) to head to safety from the bowels of the building. Structurally, a lot of this resembles the previously mentioned disaster flicks. There’s just periodic referrals back to the drama of high school politics and its caste society. As much as that sounds like it’s rife with potential, that potential is only sporadically fulfilled.
The voice work is uniformly effective, though no one really stands out, much like the rest of the project. Schwartzman is his standard issue self. Rudolph and Watts also have significant roles, though they underplay their parts a bit too much, limiting their effectiveness. Faring a bit better is Sarandon, who has a smaller part and clearly is enjoying herself. As for Dunham, she’s fine, but doesn’t bring much to an underwritten part. In addition to other players like Alex Karpovsky and John Cameron Mitchell, Louisa Krause provides voice work. No one phones it in, but no one blows you away either.
Shaw certainly has a singular vision on display here. It does come off sometimes like a vanity project, especially with the title character sharing his name. That’s hardly an issue, but it’s worth mentioning. The animation is crude, but almost hypnotic at times. Shaw’s direction is a highlight of “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.” The writing is where the issues come to the forefront. Nothing that happens is particularly interesting, with the hipster vibe being in overdrive and the satire being an afterthought. I’d definitely be interested in seeing something else from Shaw, but this is just too flawed to recommend.
Again, there are clever moments sprinkled throughout “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea,” but it’s just not enough. Shaw is a filmmaker with some definite promise, but the whole package hasn’t been put together yet. If you like indie animation and a hipster vibe, you might find yourself enjoying this. Again, the visuals are occasionally splendid, but it’s just not enough. This is the definition of a mixed bag, even in the unique air of a film festival. “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” could have been something special, but it just winds up being a frustrating misfire.
“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” will screen at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 10.