People exorcise their high school years in various ways. Some exact revenge against lunchroom bullies in novels or films, others create TV series in which hapless teenage heroes develop superpowers or battle vampires. Dash Shaw’s “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” just throws the whole building off a cliff. It opens Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts.
The movie, animated with homemade gusto and featuring a hipster’s roster of a vocal cast, should win some kind of truth-in-advertising award. Tides High School, built with no discernible logic on a sheer drop-off atop a major seismic fault line, does indeed pitch into the sea early in the going, whereupon “My Entire High School” turns into a Cartoon Network version of a John Hughes remake of “The Poseidon Adventure.”
At the center of the survival tactics and life lessons is a misfit hero named Dash, just like the film’s writer-director, in case you weren’t sure whether there were personal issues being worked out here. (That the character is voiced by actor Jason Schwartzman, forever Max Fischer in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore,” is icing on a dangerously tilting cake.) Insecure but loudmouthed, Dash is a bit of a jerk who alienates Assaf (Reggie Watts) and Verti (Maya Rudolph), his only friends and his colleagues on a school newspaper that nobody ever reads.
Dash then becomes the movie’s Chicken Little when he finds evidence of the building’s stunning number of code violations, but no one pays attention until too late, when an earthquake hits, the school starts sinking beneath the waves and sharks commence to chomp on the cheerleading squad.
Even amid apocalypse, high school cliques hold firm. There’s a bad-boy druggie (Alex Karpovsky of “Girls”), a cruelly god-like senior (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” playwright John Cameron Mitchell), and a Little Miss Popular (“Girls” creator Lena Dunham) who may end up being the most levelheaded person in the whole movie. Scratch that: The character with the most surprises up her sleeve is Lunch Lady Lorraine, whom Susan Sarandon embodies with the gravelly gravitas of a soup-stained Yoda.
That’s a heck of a cast, and Shaw’s animation is a loopy, inventive mish-mosh of elements: thick pen outlines, fine etching work, washes of finger-painted color, and the occasional outbreak of full-on psychedelia. With all that raging creativity on display, why does “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” ultimately feel smaller than it should? Maybe because its maker is intent on settling old scores, sometimes literally — the film’s soundtrack, composed by Rani Sharone, at times parodies the Mickey Mousing techniques of Saturday morning cartoon music.
According to the closing credits, “My Entire High School” was six years in the making and is clearly something that Shaw felt he had to get out of his system with his feature film-directing debut. Mission accomplished, and very stylishly, too.
Now let’s see what he can really do.
MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA
Written and directed by Dash Shaw. With the voices of Jason Schwartzman, Susan Sarandon, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph. At the MFA various dates through May 20. 76 minutes. PG-13 (some images of peril, sexual references, drug material, mean girls devoured by sharks).
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.