Emma Seligman, whose 2020 debut Shiva Baby, a zinger of an anxious comedy about an aimless Manhattan collegiate “sugar baby” in an identity crisis during a shiva, turns impressive satirist with her sophomore picture Bottoms—a radically “queer” high school comedy that plays like a mash up of Heathers and Fight Club infused ribald pizzaz.
Equal parts political incorrectness and insight, Seligman and co-writer and star (and Shiva Baby alum) Rachel Sennott deliver a confident, brash movie which finds a pair of “ugly, untalented gays” hatching a plan—the same one found in every movie about teen boys—to lose their virginity during senior year. Exactly how they go about this libidinous quest makes for a breakneck black comedy of anarchic lunacy.
Lifelong besties P.J. (Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edibiri) face a few hurdles entering senior year—unpopular and outcast from the in crowd (and “out” at school), they pine for longtime secret loves and beautiful cheerleaders Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber), way out of their leagues. Popular Isabel is taken by the vapid, worshipped star quarterback Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine) while glamorous Brittany (Kaia Gerber, a dead ringer for mom Cindy Crawford) can barely be persuaded to try a hot dog, let alone indulge a girl in love.
Suddenly, a plan—what better way to win the affections of a pretty cheerleader than by…organizing an extracurricular female fight club? The trouble is, only “ugly” girls show up—that is, until word gets around that it’s an empowerment/safe space affinity group organized by an unlikely pair of juvenile delinquency alums skilled in maiming their out of line detention mates. So what if the pair didn’t spend summer vacay in juvie when a lie this good quickly becomes a reputation turning legend?
“We’re the lowest of the low. We have nowhere to go but up!” With those fighting words, P.J. and Josie launch their club under a ruse of a premise—longtime rival school Huntington High, with a reputation for bloodlust, is en route for the school’s homecoming game. What better time that to teach the girls how to fend for themselves? If the club is successful, P.J. considers, the end game might just lead to “kissing on the mouth” with their ever elusive crushes, or at least a few wrestling clinches. Funny stuff.
Recruits include similarly outcast Hazel (a terrific Ruby Cruz), offering a tip: the club just might create female unity in its strength-in-numbers campus feminism. After preoccupied, soon-to-be-divorced history teacher Mr. G (former NFL star Marshawn Lynch, an ace comedian) agrees to chaperone and new joiners Isabel and Brittany drop in, the movie takes off with punch packing comic brutality. Meanwhile, airhead Jeff and equally dense teammate Tim (Miles Fowler), who wear their football gear in every scene, grow increasingly irked that the student body seems, for the first time, to be trending toward girl power and away from alpha male ineptitude in the run up to the big game. Where’s the school spirit?
Seligman and Sennott sling juicy arrows slung at token allies, affinity groups and cloying safe spaces in a picture with fierce, unwavering commitment to the bit, from its Fight Club turned upside premise to its leave no joke unturned approach. Yet they never lose sight of their central life force, the winning combo of Sennott (Shiva Baby, Bodies Bodies Bodies), a volcanically confident performer veering from broad to thoughtful on a dime, and Edebiri (The Bear, Theater Camp), who matches her co-star with offbeat comedic line readings and surprising tenderness, as when her Josie unexpectedly finds the girl of her dreams in her bedroom. The way Edebiri plays this moment brings this zany film right to unmistakable reality, particularly for gay teens who ever carried an unrequited first love torch across lockered hallways, football fields and cafeteria cliques.
A satire of high school social orders, radical feminism, exaggerated machismo and grisly comeuppance, Bottoms is both meta clever zaniness and sincerity, taking its outcast teenage love and belonging seriously. For every funny irony like a straight-faced use of Total Eclipse of the Heart and welcome 90s-era montage set to Avril Lavigne’s seminal Complicated, there are moments of adolescent sting, particularly for bullied gay teens resigned to forever exist outside the popular bubble. Seligman reportedly wanted to make a film for those youth, whose pursuits and desires mirror their straight counterparts but rarely get airtime, and Bottoms is an impressibly sustained, wish-fulfillment corrective.
With just two features to her credit, twenty-eight-year-old Seligman balances a barbed satire, often mean and frequently raunchy right to its comically gruesome finale, eschewing standard coming-of-age tropes in favor of wild invention with just enough heart to be universal.
Bottoms is the year’s funniest film.
3 1/2 stars