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A term I hear a lot to describe slick, antic-driven movies with airy narratives is “fun.” (I’ve used it, too, about smooth-brain films I realize after a few days I didn’t really like but had to say something about.) We praise these films for serviceable visuals, steady direction and a handful of star performances. We forgive the plot holes and ignore the jarring tonal shifts. As these movies swerve from one farcical situation to another, we’re sometimes nagged by a creeping ambivalence. But we shrug it off once we remember the few times we laughed. “Fun” counts for something. Right?
Yes, but also no. Emma Seligman’s Bottoms is the most recent case in point. To me, real fun — ephemeral, subjective — often entails leaning into a lot of un-fun things: earnestness, character development and even restraint in service of a broader purpose. It’s work I don’t think Bottoms is particularly interested in. The high-school sex comedy — written by the Shiva Baby director and her co-conspirator Rachel Sennott — shocks with its raunchy romp and robust offensiveness, but comes up short on the revelatory vulnerability that would make it as subversive as it wants to be.
Cast: Rachel Sennott, Ayo Edebiri, Ruby Cruz, Havana Rose Liu, Kaia Gerber
Director: Emma Seligman
Screenwriters: Emma Seligman, Rachel Sennott 1 hour 32 minutes
Bottoms is mostly air, and that weightlessness leaves us grasping for more from its characters and their story. Seligman and co-writer/star Sennott set out to make a still-rare kind of film: a queer teen comedy where the characters aren’t plagued by trauma, defined by coming out or condescended-to with pat romance. PJ (Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) are two uncool seniors with one goal: getting laid before the end of the year. Their quest is a familiar one: Bottoms inherits its broad strokes from mostly white-cishet-masculine cult classics like Superbad and American Pie. But Seligman and Sennott subvert the genre tropes and liberate their queer protagonists from respectability and representation. PJ and Josie aren’t losers because they’re gay; they’re losers because they’re untalented and unlikeable.
That set-up functions as effectively as it does here thanks to the two leads. Sennott and Edebiri are among today’s most exciting young actors, and their established chemistry (from their Comedy Central days), razor-sharp timing and ability to capture the caustic tone of the chronically online work wonders. The film hits its stride early, dropping us into a scene with PJ and Josie plotting ways to have sex as they get ready for their school fair. Their banter is cutting, quick and laced with the affection of old friends (though more backstory would have been welcome). Edebiri’s physical comedy — her facial reactions alone could be studied — play well against Sennott’s acerbic verbal humor. The Bear star’s skills are on full display in an early scene when Josie, resigned to her fate as a closeted lesbian, anxiously spirals in a way those of us who relate to getting caught up in our twisted imaginations will find painfully familiar and funny.
Bottoms’ action starts with a fib turned legend. Miscommunication at the school fair leads the entire school to believe that Josie and PJ spent their summer in juvenile detention. And rumor has it they even killed someone. Never mind that the two girls have never been in a fight or even thrown a punch. The violent lore ups the duo’s credibility and grants them a previously unknown kind of respect.
Realizing they can capitalize on this newfound relevance, PJ and Josie start a woman’s fight club at school. They hope it will attract the attention and adoration of their respective crushes, Brittany (Kaia Gerber) and Isabel (Havan Rose Liu). So Josie and PJ sell the group — to their cofounder Hazel (Ruby Cruz) and faculty advisor Mr. G (a scene stealing Marshawn Lynch) — as a self-defense club undergirded by feminist values. This, they tell new recruits, is about helping women feel empowered, supported and safe.
As the two scramble to lead the club, the stakes of their lie become unwieldier. In Shiva Baby, Seligman demonstrated dexterity with building stories around comedic discomfort and claustrophobia. Her stage here is bigger than the suburban house in which Shiva Baby was set, but Seligman is no less confident. She embraces her expanded canvas, which includes the halls and classrooms of Josie and PJ’s high school and local watering holes in their sleepy suburb. With the help of DP Maria Rusche and production designer Nate Jones, Seligman builds out a surrealist vision of high school that upends our perception of the usual jock/cheerleader/nerd hierarchy.
No place are the film’s transgressive goals more apparent (and their realization shakier) than in the screenplay, chock full of jokes, ironic quips, asides and the occasional stale analysis of the very online. Everyone is the punchline in Bottoms, which indiscriminately jabs but pays special attention to the contradictions of a particular strain of white feminism. Some of the jokes land gloriously, while others fall disastrously apart. In that latter category, a throwaway line about late scholar bell hooks clarifies why the film left me feeling empty. “Who is bell hooks and why should we care?” one character says during a study session turned flirtation.
I thought about hooks’ writings on the limitations of Beyoncé’s Lemonade as feminist art. She points out the “fantasy feminism” of the album and the false construction of a simplified worldview, in which women gaining the freedom to be like men can be seen as powerful. Although the scholar was speaking specifically about the relationship between Black women, men and rage, there are applicable lessons here. Bottoms starts as subversion, mocking the ideas most often attributed to feminist “girlbosses.” A woman’s fight club is a hollow symbol in a homophobic and patriarchal world. In Bottoms, it’s a winking acknowledgement of how feminism can be manipulated and misappropriated. But the film never offers us a version of genuine solidarity that we can believe in its place.
The jokes keep coming, but without a meaningful foundation — fleshing out the motivations of the group’s members would have helped — they start to wear thin. The film seems to recognize this, as it quietly submits to the things it initially mocked, burrowing into a sentimentalism I thought it was too smart to believe in.
Production companies: Brownstone Productions, Orion Pictures
Cast: Rachel Sennott, Ayo Edebiri, Ruby Cruz, Havana Rose Liu, Kaia Gerber, Nicholas Galitzine, Miles Fowler, Marshawn Lynch, Dagmara Dominiczyk, Punkie Johnson
Director: Emma Seligman
Screenwriters: Emma Seligman, Rachel Sennott
Producers: Elizabeth Banks, Max Handelman, Alison Small
Executive producers: Ted Deiker, Emma Seligman, Rachel Sennott
Cinematographer: Maria Rusche
Production designer: Nate Jones
Costume designer: Eunice Jera Lee
Editor: Hanna Park
Music: Charli XCX, Leo Birenberg
Casting director: Maribeth Fox
1 hour 32 minutes
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