For all the money that it makes, animation remains misunderstood by the film industry as a whole.
Take this recent change in the Oscar nomination process: Starting next year, any member of the Academy will be able to help choose the films that make up all animation categories. That’s unlike how most Oscar categories work, and how the animation ones used to operate. Before, only those in the Academy’s dedicated animation branch could elect the Oscar nominees.
Limiting the nomination process just to expert opinions led to years of diverse animated films making it into the Academy Awards ceremony. These films — like last year’s Kubo and the Two Strings, The Red Turtle and My Life as a Zucchini — rarely ever stood a chance of winning against studio pictures from DreamWorks and Disney/Pixar, but a single clip making it onto the broadcast was enough to increase smaller projects’ visibility.
With this nomination change in place, we can expect films that are already widely visible to further dominate the field. We’ll see how this change really affects the Oscars when January 2018 rolls around and the year’s nominees are announced, but we’re already lamenting how it’s likely to give the short shift to one of 2017’s best films thus far.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a film with an unwieldy title that nonetheless is a perfect fit. It’s the story of Dash, a sophomore with his own high school tabloid and little else going for him. After his best friends and co-editors fall for each other and split off to explore high school romance, Dash decides to go the reporting thing alone — and discovers that his school is set to cave into the ocean, stat.
The film is a disaster comedy cut from the mumblecore cloth. High schoolers are decapitated; lunch ladies have superhero strength; relationships are broken and fixed. But what makes this movie special is that it’s animated, and not in the now-commonplace computer-generated style.
Dash Shaw, the director of My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea (who lent his namesake to its lead character), comes from the world of graphic novels. That’s apparent in his feature film debut, which is full of thick, Sharpie-drawn lines, kaleidoscopic colors and textured backgrounds. Characters look like they’re drawn and cut from cardboard. Flashbacks are illustrated like decades-old children’s books. The film’s most consistent element is that its art style is wildly inconsistent.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea’s look is what will grab you, more so than its story. It’s the kind of art that seems inconceivable when described. How can an animator so deftly change up styles and aesthetics, from Squigglevision to impressionism and back again, without totally alienating the audience? Somehow, it works. Animation has the unique ability to get viewers to suspend disbelief and wholeheartedly buy whatever world is built on screen. In the case of My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea, that’s a thousand little worlds, all in 77 minutes.
For a viewer conditioned to experimental art and animation, at least, this is the stuff of dreams. But the look of most mainstream animated films has been whittled down to a science at this point. Pixar movies are still beautiful, to be sure, but they’re beautiful in the way that an impressively rendered video game can be breathtaking. It’s not because their individual art design is uniquely stunning, but because the team working at Pixar manages to bring their work ever closer to glossy, high-res realism with each film.
My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea doesn’t care about advancing the medium on a technical front. Instead, it dips into its past, going fully two-dimensional and reminding viewers of the precise, physical nature of animation’s origins. Watching the film, we feel as though we can see Shaw’s pen hit the paper to craft each frame.
But as the people at my screening proved to me, this is not an easy movie for everyone to sit through. A pack of men guffawed when it was over, crying out, “That was shit!” “Two out of 10!” “Was that supposed to be a joke?” As an aesthetically strange, ambitious work of art, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is not destined to sit well with a large portion of viewers. Despite resoundingly positive reviews, it’s a limited-release picture that will likely never expand much more widely.
That’s disappointing. Underneath its one-of-a-kind surface, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea tells a universal story about the inevitability of growing up. Sure, it does so with an at times graphic or even immature veneer, but the film’s overall message is simple and relatable. It’s exactly the kind of stuff that’s worth remembering around Oscar season; it recalls Don Hertzfeldt’s Oscar-nominated short World of Tomorrow, which has a similarly impressionistic style.
With this change in the nomination process, who’s to say if anyone will ever see or hear about this film beyond the small batch of critics that will sing its praises? My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea isn’t as wonderful overall as the best of Studio Ghibli or Pixar, but it’s the kind of small, unique picture that’s only possible in animation. It’s a shame that films just like it may never be able to touch a wider audience without that extra boost of awards season validation.