Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 22, 2017 5:11 am 
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"If 'Freaks and Geeks' met 'The Poseidon Adventure'" (blurb)

This is the first animated feature to be included in the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival since 2008's Waltz With Bashir, Israeli Ari Folman's striking-looking and troubling recollection of a Lebanese massacre. So, why? Cute title - but it turns out to be disappointingly literal, instead of the wish-fulfillment fantasy it suggests. Some funny lines - but hey wind up just being needless riffs on the conventional action. Colorful, handmade animation - always a welcome contrast to cookie-cutter Disney or Pixar stuff. But they trouble is, there are a lot better DIY animations out there.

No, it looks like My Entire High School largely got selected for a quaint air of hipness - and all the hip, well-connected people who made it, with New York connections, starting with the Brooklyn-based Dash Shaw. "Dash Shaw" is also the main character, voiced by the cultish and appealing Jason Schwartzman. The student leader and gynmast, Mary, is voiced by Manhattan born-and-raised Lena Dunham of Tiny Furniture, the producer of "Girls." Dash's best friend Assaf is voiced by "Late Show" musician Reggie Watts. Another core figure is Verti, the boys' editor, voiced by Maya Rudolph. The "ruler" - pretty literally - of the seniors after the disaster, Brent Daniels, is voiced by John Cameron Mitchell of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus. Alex Karpovsky (Inside LLelyn Davis, "Girls") is also heard from. Wink, nudge.

Though it's sometimes hard to make sense of the actual physical details of the escape and rescue, this film describes a coastal California high school whose code violations, due to evil, but finally redeemed, Principal Grimm (Thomas Jay Ryan) lead to its literally crashing into the sea due to an only mild earthquake. Most of the thousand-person student body winds up smashed or drowned. Not many tears are shed for that. They'd best not be, since a mood of levity is attempted - despite being hung on too stiff a structure. It's never either as funny or as exciting as one feels it ought to be. Some have said it feels more like a sketch for a film than an actual film. But that in itself is another value for the NYFF Main Slate: My Entire High School is so unpretentious it makes a good palate-cleanser between the likes of Sieranevada, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea. And it's only 75 minutes - Sieranevada is nearly three hours.

Dash Shaw's drawing style is unremarkable (in some of his other work, it's set off more elegantly - at times). The students appear in dark outline like conventional comic strip figures. It gets a bit better and more colorful as time goes on and the disaster gets going, which is pretty early on, maybe because the characters, a cook, Lunchroom Lorraine (voiced by Susan Sarandon), a student council president (Durham), and a team of school newspaper writers, aren't so interesting. The splashy backgrounds, which are almost abstract and free-form at times, help offset the plain figure drawing. It's done somewhat in the manner of watercolorists like Raoul Dufy. But it has to be said that in the world of independent animated film, there are many more interesting looking ones. The images, despite the escape from Pixar/Disney, which I welcome, are not wonderful.

The film has good lines of dialogue, due to the self-consciousness of the newspaper team, who are constantly thinking of how they will describe this event afterward in a book that will make them famous and get back and their mockers who think they're just nerds. In fact frequently a sense of danger and suspense is lost as the action stops for a childhood reminiscence or a debate about how best to describe all this later. Glenn Kenny describes High School in The New York Times as "strained, half-curdled, self-regarding millennial whimsy."

So Dash (the main character) characterizes a girl gymnast trying to escape from the water-submerged building as scaling a bridge "like an especially able tree-climbing sloth." (The intentional ineptness has a certain charm.) He tries out that phrase several times. "I thought senior boys were supposed to be mature," one of the protagonists later remarks - now that Dash, Assaf, and company are up on the senior, top, floor on their way to escape. "They never mature," is the jaded answer of a girl who knows. Another clique floats by and one guy says, "Later, gator, masterbator." "Doesn't even make any sense." "Means you jerk off crocodiles, idiot!" the wag replies.

I also liked one of the intrepid team's wail, "I don't want to die on the senior floor!" Well, you had to be there. It was funny at the time; but when you think of it, that's an enormously resonant line. If "Freaks and Geeks" met "The Poseidon Adventure" any big studio would ask for a rewrite. But Michael Sragow, who calls it "Pop outsider art," wrote most appreciatively of High School in Film Comment; and Andrew Lapin caught many pop references on NPR.

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, 75 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2016, also Fantastic Fest and the New York Film Festival and 7 other festivals. US theatrical release begins 14 Apr. 2017 (limited). At Landmark Opera Plaza San Francisco from 21 Apr. 2017.

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