Three cheers for conceptual integrity: the animated feature My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is a nigh-perfect marriage of style and narrative content, bringing to life the bored apocalyptic fantasies of a bookish, smart, socially inept high school boy of 16, who takes pleasure in casting himself as the hero and his social enemies as the expendable meat in a 1970s-style disaster movie and filling his notebooks with thick line drawings illustrating that fantasy. That's... good, if we have to have such a thing? I mean, I was a bookish, smart, socially inept 16-year-old, so if my response to this logline is "...but why would anyone want that?" I'm not sure who this could be for. And yet here it is, and it got at least decently good notices when it first opened, so let's go ahead and poke at it for a bit.

My Entire High School... is the feature debut of writer-director Dash Shaw, who I take to be a notable figure in the indie comics game. The film's plot is about an awkward sophomore at the start of the school year, committed with ferocity to his work on the school paper, and he is also named Dash Shaw (Jason Schwartzman), and this is the point where my eyes narrowed down to slits in darkest suspicion at the movie's motives and existence. But actually it turns out not to be so bad as all that; the film's endlessly dry and ironic sense of humor keeps it from going too far in the direction of valorising Dash or anybody else.

You can probably guess more or less where this is going based on that wordy title: the new addition to Tides High School has been built under code, Dash figures it out, and tries to spread the word using his bully pulpit. That is, when he's not busy being offended that his writing partner Assaf (Reggie Watts) is the clear favorite of their editor Verti (Maya Rudolph), and that a romance might be brewing between the two of them. No sooner has Dash's snooping into the school records gotten him thrown into detention than a major earthquake hits, dropping the school into the ocean, where it starts sinking, floor by floor. Dash, Assaf, Verti, and cheerleader Mary (Lena Dunham), and the inordinately capable lunch lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) thus begin a quest to crawl their way throw the sinking school, The Poseidon Adventure-style, rising from the sophomore floor to the junior floor and thence to the senior floor in a metaphor that is just about exactly the right amount of entirely obvious, given the sort of movie this is.

The film was, as near as I can tell, animated entirely by one woman, Jane Samborski (Shaw's partner), which is most of the way to being a good thing. Like, if the point of the film is that it's an expression of a 16-year-old's artistic horizons, the low-fi approach makes sense. Though let's not pretend that this was some bold artistic gesture; I suspect the film was made the way it was because that was by far the most cost-effective way of doing it. The style is a mixture of lots of things, but the mean to which it always returns is simple line drawings that look like they were done in permanent markers, looking very much like the doodles of a bored kid about whose artistic talents we can say nothing more urgently positive than that he's not bad. Samborski has fed Shaw's drawings into some computer animation program or another, and the resultant movement has the unmistakably over-fluid, unbending look of Flash and its descendants; it looks cheap as hell, though it's not too much of a leap to say that it looks cheap as hell on purpose.

What really gives the film its visual personality is the use of color. My Entire High School... lives in a world of bold primary color fields, sometimes breaking down entirely into abstractions that do very little else than to imply the rudiments of a space, rather than clearly mark it out with lines and details. It's one of the most unusual animated features to come out in the United States in a long time, though the basic parameters of its style don't feel particularly fresh at all: this kind of work is common on TV, in technique if not necessarily in terms of the specific explosions of color Shaw and Samborski employ. And for the sheer sake of novelty, I have to tip my hat to the film; we need more animation going off the beaten path, even if it's still on a path.

The thing about this kind of deliberately small, handicrafted animation on a shoestring budget, is that it needs to be in service to something - it simply doesn't remain interesting, on its own terms, for long enough to sustain a feature (My Entire High School... is 75 minutes long, and you can pretty much determine what the whole thing is up to based on any given 10 minute slice - fewer, if you take a slice from the beginning and ending, when it mixes more media at a faster clip. One of the reasons this kind of animation is more common in short forms is because it's really only interesting for about that long. So there needs to be some kind of crafty storytelling, or character building, or thematic richness involved (take, for instance, the minimalist gems of Don Hertzfeldt, which hit all three of those), and My Entire High School... only sort of does. Shaw's sense of humor is amusing enough, though flattened out a bit by the performances - it's a bit too self-consciously hip a collection of people to let their respective personae fade in to the background and Sarandon is the only actor who isn't doing exactly what you expect her to do (she is also, to be fair, the only actor playing a character who isn't a by-the-books cliché). Animated Dash's personality is awfully generic, though, and none of the other characters are there to do much else besides support him. The film is a strange little lark through a teenage boy's sense of misplaced aggrievement, and it nimbly manages to both flatter and mock that worldview, but it's really just not very interesting to watch a school paper nerd enact his not-very-elaborate heroism fantasies, and the colorfully simplistic art style only covers for it up to a point.