The healing power of a natural disaster
To a teenager, the world is a boundless sea of experiences and hopes and fears and people and possibilities. But when the confines of a public high school, with its endless days of tedium, unquestionable authority, and worst of all – other teenagers – impose arbitrary bounds, the dramatic possibilities are endless, and have tempted artists of just about every medium, style, and approach.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, the first feature written and directed by graphic novelist and animator Dash Shaw, manages to jolt the venerable high school film genre with new life from some surprising places, and suggests that nothing short of disaster can save those between thirteen and eighteen years old.
Many genre tropes are in attendance here, and the film opens with Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) and his best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts), staking out newer, more privileged seats on the bus ride to the first day of their sophomore year at Tides High. They discuss the year’s first issue of Tides High Gazette, their oft-published, little-read rag. Their walk through the halls takes us through obligatory encounters with the cool kids who hate them and the jaded staff saddled with another year of wrangling hormones and dishing out chili.
Dash’s volatile mixture of enthusiasm, arrogance, and ignorance is an obvious nod to Schwartzman’s Max Fischer in Rushmore. But where Max bathes in celebrity, Dash rants the familiar complaints of a high school outsider. He’s prone to empty and impulsive proclamations like “student politics are a puppet show.” As Dash and Assaf meet up with Verti (Maya Rudolph) to oversee the Gazette’s first issue of the year, the film seems to set us up for a predictable type of ensemble tale, like Outsiders to Insiders (Sixteen Candles, Dazed and Confused), Too Cool for School (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Heathers) or They Just Don’t Understand Me (Breakfast Club, Rebel Without a Cause).
Filmmakers have had ample opportunities to plum the genre for just about every last morsel of meaning. An early entry, High School (1940), explores class and society by sending a resourceful farm girl off to school in the big city. And by the time of The Blackboard Jungle (1955), in which Glenn Ford teaches English, responsibility, and self-respect at an inner-city high school, the genre’s thematic structure has been established; an outsider threatens dysfunctional authority. Authority pushes back. Drama ensues. Lessons are learned. Old connections shatter, and new ones are forged, and we all learn that our society can grow and strengthen from those who question and challenge it. Into this mold have been poured an almost limitless mix of variations – from high school musicals, to high school football films, to high school vampire films, to high school horror films, and the list goes on and on. How is a young director to make his mark in this very crowded field? Dash Shaw has chosen to mash-up high school film with disaster film, with surprising and satisfying results.
Just as our film’s hero Dash and his cohorts try to hand out their newsletter, an earthquake shakes the school’s very core, and we learn Tides High is actually perched precariously on a rocky outcropping overlooking the ocean. Shaw is an acclaimed graphic novelist, who first drew this film as a graphic novel – a medium in which rich imagery serve to both add texture and advance the plot. The film borrows literally and liberally from the book. In just a series of images, we learn architectural details of how each floor contains a different grade, and flash, we see fissures cracking from the foundation.
And yet we hold back our judgement, precisely because as the main character, Dash seems like an unreliable narrator of the over wrought, given to purple prose variety. I kept wondering whether all the shaking and quaking happening at the school during aftershocks was just a figment of Dash’s hyperactive teenaged imagination.
Dash Shaw has said that he was very influenced by The Titanic when drawing the graphic novel, and it clearly shows in the film. When the big one hits, Shaw quickly hustles us out of his high school film and into his disaster film. As with most disaster films, veritable strangers are thrown together in the quest for simple survival, and here Dash, Verti, and Assaf must team with popular-girl know-it-all Mary (Lena Dunham) and Lunch Lady Lorraine, voiced with a yellow-tinged cigarette smokiness by Susan Sarandon. Once we recover from the shock and aftershock of genre bouncing, we’re thankful that Shaw adheres more or less closely to the confines of a disaster film. And while his storytelling stays tied to the genre, his animation takes off in new directions.
As lead animator, Shaw’s partner Jane Samborski chose to evoke different moods and feelings by literally having different animators handle different parts of the film. The result could have left us with two barely connected shorter films, and a perplexing jumble of a story. But the strength of the characters and the familiar beats of the later parts of a disaster film’s structure allow us to enjoy the imagery without being distracted. There is a particularly striking sequence where the group must climb up an elevator shaft. Samborski chose to treat it in the style of the great silhouette animator Lotte Reiniger, and the result is as emotionally complex as it is visually sparse.
By the film’s end, we are left with high school film and disaster film conclusions – we all have a newfound respect for one another, and some of us didn’t get eaten by sharks or drown or burn up! What’s more, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea suggests something entirely new, which is that maybe it takes a disaster for the teenaged mind to put aside petty grievances and sophomoric world views.