When it comes to high drama, there probably isn’t any time in a person’s life as tumultuous and dramatic as high school. Well, combat, maybe, but not everyone has to face the front lines. They do have to face first period, though, and when you’re in the shit, it can seem just as bad.

Many movies have mined high school histrionics for great effect (the 2000 Japanese dystopian film, Battle Royal, possibly being the greatest), and though the dynamics of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation within the hallowed halls of secondary education are certainly well-plowed, fresh aesthetics can make the familiar seem new again. That newness is the exciting shot of energy imbuing Dash Shaw’s debut feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.

One part high school drama, one part blockbuster satire, and one part disaster movie, My Entire High School centers on the friendship of Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) and Assaf (Reggie Watts), the self-imposed sophomore outcasts of Tide High. What Assaf lacks in assertiveness, Dash carries in spades: “This is going to be a big year for our hero and his faithful sidekick.” And while Dash lacks self-awareness, Assaf readily acknowledges that their outcast status might be because of other causes: “You think people don’t like you because of your acne. But the truth is, it might be more of a personality issue.”

Dash’s personality and pride aren’t going to get any better when he discovers Assaf is in a relationship with Verti (Maya Rudolph), their editor at the school newspaper. Feeling betrayed, Dash lashes out in the school paper with a blatant and fabricated smear campaign. This lands Dash in hot water with Principal Grimm (Thomas Jay Ryan), who lost his eye in a freak pop-up book accident at a young age.

Not to be done in, Dash goes looking for a real scoop and inadvertently uncovers Grimm’s dirty secret: Tide High is built on a fault line. One so unstable, even the slightest earthquake would send the school sliding down the hill and into the drink, trapping all the students and faculty inside and tossing the insanity of high school drama like a disaster salad.

As the title suggestions, My Entire High School spends most of the movie in disaster mode with the students and staff—which include class president, Mary (Lena Dunham), and Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon, the movie’s best part)—overcoming obstacle after obstacle as they climb the school’s hierarchy: Freshmen at the bottom, and seniors on the top. To survive, they must avoid sharks, fire, and a kangaroo court presided over by the school’s ace student and football star, Brent Daniels (John Mitchell Cameron).

All of this animated with simplistic character drawings that flicker and wiggle over bright, and sometimes psychedelic, backgrounds of acrylic paint on Bristol boards, enhanced with stroboscopic effects. The effect is charming and unusual and takes the sting off of visual material that might seem too unpleasant, too violent for the movie’s humorous tone.

Made over the span of six years (2010–2016), My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea recalls the cult/midnight air of Ralph Bakshi, Bill Plimpton, Robert Crumb (without the gratuitous nudity, if you can call a drawing “nude”) and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. It’s not like anything that passes as animation these days, and that’s perfect. High time some fresh air blew open those doors.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2016)
Written and directed by Dash Shaw
Produced by Kyle Martin and Craig Zobel
Lead animator: Jane Samborski
Vocal work: Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Lena Dunham, Maya Rudolph, Susan Sarandon, Thomas Jay Ryan, John Cameron Mitchell
GKIDS, Rated PG-13, Running time 75 minutes, Opens April 28, 2017