Before “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” even begins, a pre-credits title card warns of stroboscopic effects to come. This is very considerate of the film, but it is the last moment viewers will see anything resembling thoughtful behavior from most of writer-director Dash Shaw’s animated teenage characters.
The existence of high school sophomore Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) is one in which it has been decided — entirely by Dash, of course — that since his acne has cleared up in time for the new school year, he will set about becoming popular and conquering his environment with powerful journalism for the school paper. Dash’s story ideas usually involve Dash heroically exposing something, all for the sake of Dash. His best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts) is also a writer, but Dash considers Assaf little more than an adjunct, treating him with as much respect.
Unfortunately for the entire student body, a real story in need of Dash’s exposé-writing skills is waiting for someone to sound the alarm. An administrative cover-up of the school’s earthquake instability (and this school is located on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, oops) could stand some “Spotlight”-style investigative journalism.
But since Dash’s self-aggrandizing reputation is already fairly well solidified, nobody pays much attention when he starts telling everyone that he’s their only hope. Cue one medium-sized earthquake and one entire high school sinking into the sea.
At this point, the movie shifts narrative gears and turns into a loving, funny remake of “The Poseidon Adventure” by way of “Daria,” with Dash, Assaf, school newspaper editor Verti (Maya Rudolph), a popular girl named Mary (Lena Dunham), and the take-charge Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) working to convince everyone around that the only way out is up.
Heroics, however, are in short supply, and Shaw knows why. Sharks, a burning school bus, blocked exits, fire, jellyfish, and a gang of violent, opportunistic jocks prove no more treacherous than the adolescent narcissism on display. These kids are petty trash-talkers. No helping hand goes unannounced by the helper. (Not skipping a beat after a quick-save, Dash crows to Assaf, “You owe your life to me!”)
They are self-absorbed and argumentative, holding on to slights, grudges and grievances against their parents, even as they face near-certain death. In more lucid moments, they discuss their future fame as disaster survivors or, more romantically, as its very cool victims.
Shaw’s generosity as a storyteller, however, is one in which unearned forgiveness trumps justice. His kids are just learning about their own mortality, some for the first time, and their only point of reference is how it will all affect them, so he tends toward cutting all of them a break. It’s more “A Charlie Brown Disaster Movie” than “Heathers.”
The legacy of Charles M. Schulz extends to Shaw’s animation style. Visual references to Peanuts TV specials and feature films (the wildly colorful opening credits of “Snoopy Come Home” come to mind) pop up again and again. There are monochromatic or exuberantly swirling backgrounds. Characters walk on air, fly and spin.
And when Shaw tires of thinking of Schulz, he just goes off. Layered images, un-erased pencil strokes, odd color blocking, jagged edges, heavy lines, painted frames with visible brush strokes, juxtapositions of marker, crayon, and charcoal, collage techniques, photographic effects, a set of psychedelic human lungs: this is is low-budget ambition firing on all cylinders.
He’s not just showing off. Shaw’s scattered visuals are reflective of adolescent emotional life. His kids are learning, in ways that recall both the insight of comic artist Lynda Barry and the lunkheadedness of “Beavis & Butthead,” about life and death, human fragility, identity, the dissolution and strengthening of friendship, and actual bravery in the kind of heightened, dramatic situation teenagers daydream about every single day. Then he gives them an opportunity to enact their preferred working position — disobedience — as a chance to save their own lives.
Of course, if they survive, they might still be just as insufferable, but that’s all part of growing up.