Three years ago, writer/director Emma Seligman and actor Rachel Sennott made quite a splash with Shiva Baby, their honest and frank look at the life of a Jewish college student. Now the pair has co-written (with Seligman once again directing) a flat-out raunchy and ridiculously funny comedy about two high school outcasts (who also happen to be lesbians), PJ (Sennott) and Josie (The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri), who start a self-defense club (that transforms into a fight club) as a way to meet and possibly hook up with some of the schools more popular and good-looking girls, especially cheerleaders.
Produced by, among others, Elizabeth Banks and featuring an absolutely slamming soundtrack by Charlie XCX and Leo Birenberg, Bottoms is yet another example of a hard R-rated comedy that doesn’t feel the need to lower the bar for humor in order to make us laugh. Its observations about teenage behavior and motivation, as well as the pecking order among high schoolers, are all so on the money, they sometimes make us cringe. Normally, a modern teen comedy that features queer characters wouldn’t dare let those characters appear as anything other than kind and understanding, but there are moments in which PJ is the meanest or least sensitive person in the room, and she rarely makes apologies for being so. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t grow as a person during the course of the film, but her life lessons are hard-earned, and she burns a lot of bridges to get there.
With a big football game on the horizon against the school’s arch rivals, tensions are high but the players from both teams seem to have carte blanche when it comes to acting like assholes toward everyone. At PJ and Josie’s school, no player is a bigger offender than Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine, who can currently be seen as the gay prince in Amazon’s Red, White & Royal Blue), who cheats on his cheerleader girlfriend Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), but still manages to get her to forgive him. Isabel also happens to be Josie’s crush, whom she’s never actually spoken to (“I’m playing the long game,” she insists). With girls around the school fearing for their safety from attacks by football players from both schools, our heroines decide to form the self-defense club, even though they have no experience or training in any form of self defense.
After getting the least likely teacher (NFL player Marshawn Lynch as Mr. G.) to sign off on the club as a figurehead sponsor, unexpectedly, it becomes more of an empowerment group as its numbers increase. Not only do the girls fight-train on each other—turning things into a brutal but exhilarating fight club—but they also take time to sit around and talk about the many anxieties and perils of being teenage girls in this day and age. Even the cheerleaders, including Isabel and her sidekick Brittany (Kaia Gerber, deliberately looking every bit like her mother, Cindy Crawford), join up because they heard the club was now popular, placing PJ and Josie exactly where they wanted to be in terms of their social lives.
The club is even activated in times of need, like when Jeff cheats on Isabel again, and they all decide to get revenge on him, with one club member, Hazel (an absolutely hilarious and offbeat Ruby Cruz), volunteering to put a bomb under Jeff’s car. But when Jeff’s best friend, Tim (Miles Fowler), decides to uncover the truth about the fight club’s origins and even PJ and Josie’s backstory about having learned to defend themselves while in juvenile prison, the entire female structure at the school is in danger. Bottoms isn’t afraid to get wild, vulgar and even unrealistic (not a spoiler, but the film ends with a literal massacre), and that only makes the movie that much more of a riotous pleasure. To show how strong the film is, a one-scene cameo by SNL’s Punkie Johnson might be the funniest and most important work she’s done to date.
In other works like Bodies Bodies Bodies and HBO’s The Idol, Sennott has proven that she’s an absolute gift, providing just enough weirdo sexual energy to keep everyone watching off their guard. And Edebiri is still in the process of being discovered outside of her role as Sydney in The Bear, so watching her combine nervous energy with a mix of shyness and supreme self-confidence to create Josie is a genuine treat here. Bottoms is unapologetic while still clearly wanting to be liked and accepted, much like its characters. It surprised me repeatedly with its direction, tone, and sharp writing, to the point where it seems of the utmost importance that Seligman and Sennott never stop working together.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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