However you feel about the ubiquity of high school turmoil as a movie genre, it’s safe to say there’s nothing like animator Dash Shaw’s “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea,” a colorful, hand-drawn calamity comedy that is equal parts John Hughes, Wes Anderson and Irwin Allen.
Shaw, whose work encompasses graphic novels (“New School,” “Cosplayers”) and the cartoon arts (the video “Seraph” for Sigur Rós), brings to bear a delightfully absurd sensibility and a keenly funny understanding of youthful alienation and ambition neurosis. You’d be surprised how much the two fit together in Shaw’s succession of ever-more fantastical disaster scenarios: the cafeteria powwow about imminent flooding death that devolves into petty cliquishness, friends arguing about whether yoga is exercise while averting near-demise, a tough-as-nails lunch lady turning into an unexpected (to the scared kids, that is, not to herself) action hero. The collage at work in Shaw’s debut feature is both figurative and, considering the layering of drawing, painting and photographic image, literal.
The same goes for the fault lines that run through cliff-side Tides High School: They define the students’ group-segregated lives yet also exist as a reality underneath the building. Shaw’s self-named anti-hero Dash (the voice of Jason Schwartzman) and bespectacled Assaf (Reggie Watts) are outcast best buds who fancy themselves muckrakers for their school paper, which is edited by the third member of their misfit trio, bookish Verti (Maya Rudolph). When Dash’s over-sensitivity threatens to break up the gang, he turns on his friends, but in bitter exile also discovers the scoop of his sophomore life: a top-down scandal exposing the building as not being up to the earthquake safety code.
Nobody believes Dash, because he’s a serial exaggerator. But he’s proved right the hard way when the mildest of subterranean shocks sends the school sliding into the Pacific. The only true escape — from sharks, drowning or students still harboring lingering school resentments — means finding one’s way to the roof, and making unlikely friends, including the aforementioned Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) and a snobby joiner named Mary (Lena Dunham in the Molly Ringwald role).
As externalized visions of high school hellishness go, Shaw’s doesn’t always translate into the most cohesively entertaining of mash-ups, but his techniques are attention-grabbers. Sometimes, it’s as if Lynda Barry were a cutout-mad Fauvist. Sometimes, it’s the trippiest “Scooby-Doo” episode you’ve ever seen. The strangely mixed sound design for the deadpan dialogue simultaneously recalls Robert Altman and Judd Apatow. Most of the time, characters are crudely rendered in simple lines, but one wistful recollection of a camp summer features detailed illustrations that feel like something out of Highlights magazine (until the jokey closeup of urine-stained underwear breaks that spell).
But even at its most art-installation-like — when your attention might be tempted to wander as Shaw wrestles with focusing on story or visuals — it percolates with the imagination of a passionate few artists, rather than narcotizes in the manner of industrialized animation, and that’s a beautiful thing. Sleeping sharks get ZZZs above their heads. A character’s color — it often changes — usually feels connected to the intensity of what he or she is feeling. And sometimes there’s a photograph of a cotton swab.
Better still, Shaw’s adventure story, with its shades of “The Poseidon Adventure,” allows for pockets of feeling that, though conceived as semi-winking homages to those “Breakfast Club”-like moments of class-divide understanding, still carry a measure of sincerity. For a movie that impishly likes cutting to animated lungs during its crisis-of-breath moments and gets edgy kicks out of depicting its high body count, it’s the film’s secretly beating heart — the awareness that surviving high school brings — that underlies its creativity. It makes Shaw’s frequent flights of head-scratching comic fancy even feel emotionally appropriate. Because, at a certain point, in the words of that other comic book movie, you’ll believe a poetically waxing lunch lady can fly.
‘My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea’
Rating: PG-13 for some images of peril, sexual references and drug material
Running Time: 1 hour, 17 minutes
Playing: the NuArt