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Let the 'Bottoms' Hit the Floor
Emma Seligman's latest is the nihilistic, queer high school sex comedy you've been waiting for.
Bottoms, the extremely funny new film from director Emma Seligman, is one of those movies that seems, on paper, like it shouldn’t work. It’s more cartoonish than Superbad, Mean Girls, Sixteen Candles, Easy A, or even American Pie, and makes the summer’s other raunchy, female-lead comedies, No Hard Feelings and Joy Ride, seem like Ken Burns documentaries by comparison. But it is also somehow more earnest than Wet Hot American Summer and Not Another Teen Movie. It has things to say about being a woman in the modern world, like Booksmart and Barbie, but it’s perfectly willing to kind of wave those things aside in favor of just being silly, like the earlier work of Adam McKay and Todd Phillips. And either its thematic messaging is kind of all over the map, like your average Adam Sandler flick, or it’s a bleak comedy on the same nihilistic wavelength as Dr. Strangelove and most Coen Brothers movies. I have to imagine that the screenplay - which Seligman wrote with the movie’s co-lead, Rachel Sennott - might have raised concerns over its potentially-uneasy mishmash of tones. That it works so well is, I believe, a testament partially to its brief runtime (92 minutes with credits!), but mostly to the extremely talented people who made it.
The premise of Bottoms is one we’ve seen, in my conservative estimation, approximately three-billion times before: Horny high school losers concoct a crazy and corrupt scheme to get laid. The difference here is that the horny high schoolers, Josie (The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri) and PJ (Sennott), are queer women, not straight men, and the crazy and corrupt scheme is to start a fight club under the auspices of “female empowerment.”
This set-up might suggest that Seligman is interested in interrogating the decidedly-male tropes of the mainstream Hollywood high school sex comedy as it has existed for roughly the last fifty years. But Bottoms barely dips its toe in post-modern waters; much as Mel Brooks and Zucker Brothers movies still follow the same basic structure of the targets they’re satirizing, so you will be able to see every plot point in Bottoms coming from five miles away. Seligman basically glosses over perfunctory story elements, lest they slow the pacing too much. She also lampshades any details that don’t hold up to scrutiny.
But she also also doesn’t steer clear of being explicitly political. Much like the young women in Booksmart, Josie and PJ live in a comedically-progressive community, where they are shunned by their peers not for being gays, but for being “ugly, untalented gays.” But there are also charcoal-black jokes about sexual assault, school shooters and domestic terrorism, illiteracy and the American education apparatus at large, eating disorders, absentee parenting, political correctness, mental health, religious conservatives, feminism, and, in ways both implicit and explicit, the homoeroticism of contact sports.
Thing is, Bottoms doesn’t really make any kind of point about these things. It’s just spraying bullets at everything and everyone indiscriminately (I have to imagine the makers of South Park will really like this movie). Consequently, the message of Bottoms, broadly speaking, ends up being something akin to “Everyone is stupid and everything sucks.” What, I wonder, does Seligman actually hope to accomplish, if anything other than making people laugh for awhile? Is it all just one big troll?
I think the movie’s anarchistic spirit is very clearly exemplified by a trio of supporting characters.
The first is a teacher, Mr. G., played by Marshawn Lynch (yes, that Marshawn Lynch). Mr. G oversees both P.E. and history (sample lesson: “The Holocaust… it happened!”), peruses a porno magazine called Divorced and Happy in front of his students, and flip-flops repeatedly between views that are explicitly misogynistic and those of an ‘ally.’
The other two are Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber, the spitting image of her mother), cheerleaders who are the objects of Josie and PJ’s respective affections. Brittany is bulimic, admits that her identity is entirely tied to Isabel, and yet also runs her own flourishing jewelry business. Isabel, meanwhile, comes off as very sweet-natured… but she’s also kind of awful and a bit of an idiot: At one point, she says that her love language is people behaving violently on her behalf, and later, after observing a spiritual image on Josie’s wall, the most profound observation she can muster is, “Wow. I love God.” Late in the movie, Josie scolds PJ for having a crush on Brittany, asserting that said crush is purely superficial - but PJ does not get to call out Josie for being equally shallow.
Again: These characters are all quite droll, but it’s not clear what they mean, exactly, in the thematic scheme of the narrative. I don’t know what Seligman thinks or feels about Josie lusting after Isabel or Mr. G being a yutz. In Shiva Baby, Seligman’s debut, Sennott also played a young woman who makes ethically questionable decisions - but that film wrestled with the character’s psyche in a way that Bottoms never does. I can’t decide if all Seligman wants is to watch the world burn, or if Bottoms is simply a true cinematic representation of what it feels like to be in Gen-Z, heading towards your thirties in a world that is, literally and figuratively, burning.
What I can decide is that Seligman and her cast are all talented AF. Seligman is visually versatile; she has clearly put a lot of thought into when to deploy these kinds of Wes Anderson-esque, perfectly symmetrical shots, or when to use standard coverage, or when to go handheld, etc. And, working once again with cinematographer Maria Rusche she has made a movie that often looks much prettier than necessary for a bawdy comedy. And I don’t know if she or Sennott deserves the credit, but there’s this thing with the dialogue that happens multiple times where a character says something, and then immediately repeats it in an even more dramatic tone (e.g., “But everyone knows he’s fruity… EVERYONE KNOWS HE’S FRUITY!” and “They’re gonna punk us… THEY’RE GONNA PUNK US SO HARD!”) that made me guffaw every time.
As for the cast: Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay them is to say that they don’t allow Lynch to steal the entire movie. Edebiri is the real star here - I’m one of the three people in the world who still hasn’t watched The Bear, but her performance in this movie makes me want to watch The Bear. Other standouts include Ruby Cruz, Summer Joy Campbell, and Zamani Wilder as fellow members of the lady fight club, and Miles Fowler as an overprotective football player. Punkie Johnson from Saturday Night Live also gets a fun scene as a “gay Yoda.” Only Succession’s Dagmara Dominczyk, as Cruz’s cougar mother, is wasted… I don’t know if she had more to do in the script or what, but there’s no reason for an actress of her stature to be playing such a small, thankless role.
Unless it ends up being a major hit, I’m sure Bottoms will be on streaming faster than you can say “Beast Mode.” But I’d urge you to see this in a theater if you can, preferably with a packed house. This movie plays, dude… IT PLAYS!
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