While featuring bold style choices and exceptionally creative animation, the increasingly dark violence directed at students spoiled My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.
This review is part of an ongoing series covering films appearing in the 2017 Calgary Underground Film Festival, published simultaneously with Reel World Theology.
Some films are effortless in combining creative visuals with compelling storytelling. In the nerdy high school subgenre, Wes Anderson's Rushmore looms large; successful in both style and heart. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is clear in its debt to that modern classic. This new movie is another visually unique high school drama featuring a nerdy kid voiced by Jason Schwartzman that ends in a dance party. Directed by graphic novelist Dash Shaw and also featuring the voice talents of Lena Dunman and Reggie Watts, it's an animated film is set in a high school perched on the edge of a sea cliff. A writer for the school paper and his off-beat friends uncover corruption and attempt to alert their school to the imminent danger. Until, as the title promises, the school collapses and the group attempts to make their way up floor after dangerous floor to safety.
The concept is unique, yet where the filmmakers really shine is in their endlessly inventive animation. While the characters, who move like gifs, are fairly traditionally drawn, the backgrounds and textures constantly surprise. A school bus moving down the highway suddenly transforms into a cross section of its passengers and mechanics. A student's flashback to a camping trip shows teenagers hiking across the pages of a field guide. The classrooms are painted with colourful abstract brushstrokes, the paint dripping as the building tips. Underwater scenes are overlaid with textures of bubbles, or oil and water patterns like school art projects. A character's lungs struggling for oxygen appear like a page from an Eric Carle picture book. This is beautiful and thoughtful work.
The dialogue and plot are often witty, but the enjoyment of the story began to spoil as the situation in the school got worse and the body count began to rise. Dark comedy can be effective if it's used sparsely (think of the fate of Jeff Goldbloom's cat in The Grand Budapest Hotel), or done with the right attitude (like the violence in Edgar Wright's Cornetto Trilogy). Yet as classroom upon classroom of kids are slaughtered by sharks, crushed by bleachers, or burnt in fires, it became harder to laugh along. A senior floor of a school devolving into a cult could be an effective analogy of high school politics, but world footage of death and terror in school halls are too fresh in our memory for the humour to work. This violence, along with some distasteful characters, distracted the movie's attempts to tackle loneliness, grief, and learning to understand those who are different from you.
Bold innovation is a good thing, and it was a bold decision to push the envelope as the filmmakers did. This movie is a smash up of the school drama, art animation, and grisly disaster genres. As this disaster element conquered the flavour of the film, one became increasingly weary of the bloodshed and ready to leave the company of these sad characters. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is rich in beauty and imagination. Instead of becoming something great, it merely stumbles through a conglomeration of ideas. The result is a film that embraces the best and the worst of the underground movie scene: an art house flick that feels like an experiment. If anything, it shows how extraordinary it is when films with this level of invention succeed in telling affecting stories.
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is playing as part of the 14th Calgary Underground Film Festival at the Globe Theatre on Tuesday, April 18th at 7:00 p.m. and on Sunday, April 23rd at 11:00 a.m. Tickets are available here.