It's a Race to the 'Bottoms' in Emma Seligman's Absurdist High School Sex Comedy | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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It's a Race to the 'Bottoms' in Emma Seligman's Absurdist High School Sex Comedy


Published September 13, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated September 13, 2023 at 10:12 a.m.

The kids are definitely not all right in Emma Seligman's outrageous comedy about teenage lesbians on the make. - COURTESY OF PATTI PERRET/ORION PICTURES
  • Courtesy Of Patti Perret/Orion Pictures
  • The kids are definitely not all right in Emma Seligman's outrageous comedy about teenage lesbians on the make.

Remember back in 2002, when Hollywood tried to introduce us to mainstream female raunch with The Sweetest Thing, starring Cameron Diaz? The movie flopped, leading some to declare that the time for such unseemly endeavors had not arrived and never would.

Well, now it has — and if Bottoms is any indication, the future of sex comedies is sapphic. Directed by 28-year-old Emma Seligman, who made a stir with her 2020 debut, Shiva Baby, this tale of two unabashedly horny teen girls is currently playing in local theaters.

The deal

Best friends PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) desperately want to lose their virginity before heading off to college. They've set their sights high — on cheerleaders Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber), who rarely give their two misfit admirers the time of day. Isabel dates the school's revered quarterback, Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), whose job it is to lead the team to victory over the dreaded Huntington High Golden Ferrets.

After a little mishap involving their car and Jeff's kneecaps, PJ and Josie find themselves in danger of expulsion. Using her talent for fast-talking, free-associating bullshittery, PJ spins the incident to the principal as female empowerment.

Next thing they know, the two friends are starting a girls-only fight club and recruiting the school's most laid-back teacher (Marshawn Lynch) as their adviser. Never mind that they've never set foot in juvie, where they claim to have learned scrapping skills. When the cheerleaders show up for lessons in self-defense, Josie and PJ are all too ready to teach them.

Will you like it?

How would you view the above plot summary differently if Josie and PJ were boys? Would they become sleazy, creepy predators? Would the charmingly wacky fight club scenario suddenly look like a recipe for sexual assault, reminiscent of the anything-goes high school comedies of the 1980s? Would that change even if the objects of their lust were gender-flipped, too?

Luckily for these two, nobody expects teenage girls to be physically dangerous, to other girls or to anyone else. Bottoms capitalizes on that double standard while also satirizing it with ruthless, sustained intensity.

This isn't one of those Judd Apatow-style comedies in which we laugh fondly at lovably flawed characters. In its commitment to dark comedy verging on surrealism, Bottoms is closer to Heathers — only without the soggy ending. A throwaway gag involving a bullied kid who plots violence feels every bit as perilously boundary-pushing now as those jokes about teen suicide did in 1989. Fluent in therapy speak, these characters talk casually of their "traumas" before inflicting cartoonish havoc on one another — and yes, people bleed.

Sennott cowrote the film with Seligman and personifies its anarchic spirit on screen. While Edebiri's Josie has enough soft, likable moments to be a conventional romantic lead, PJ doesn't do soft. Snarling like Jane Lynch, taunting like Joe Pesci, fighting like a Tasmanian devil, she's a terrible person and a hilarious comic concoction.

We never really find out what makes PJ tick — why, for instance, she's so cruel to Hazel (Ruby Cruz), a sweet, lethal oddball who is one of the fight club's (and the movie's) secret weapons. Sennott has virtually no arc to play, but that doesn't stop her from commanding the screen. (She's also one of the few reasons to watch the misbegotten Max series "The Idol.")

Bottoms moves at a relentless pace, tossing out one-liners like firecrackers. While many of those jokes land, not all of the movie's elements cohere, and viewers may wish for a few quieter moments in which to get to know the characters. There are enough juicy supporting performances here for several seasons of a cult TV show, but we don't always have time to enjoy them.

Perhaps Bottoms' disjointedness betrays its guiding aesthetic: meme humor. The movie paints heteronormative rituals and modern sensitivities with equally broad satirical brushstrokes, capturing them in tableaux that don't convey any particular worldview beyond the absurdity of existence in this moment. High school traditions such as the homecoming game and the bikini car wash, inherited from a less self-aware era, become as comically bizarre in this movie as Shakespearean duels and codpieces. In Heathers, it was radical to suggest that a football star could be gay. In Bottoms, the whole game of football is inherently campy, and nerdy girls pose the greatest risk to the cheerleaders' virtue.

There are limits, of course. Unlike its '80s forebears, Bottoms pauses to affirm the importance of enthusiastic sexual consent before continuing on its gleeful rampage through the outdated bric-a-brac of high school comedies past. It may not have any eloquent valedictory addresses to deliver, but, like PJ, this frenetic comedy has a fighting spirit.

If you like this, try...

Shiva Baby (2020; Hoopla, Kanopy, Max, rentable): In Seligman's acclaimed debut feature, Sennott plays a college student for whom a family funeral service becomes a nightmare when her sugar daddy shows up.

Booksmart (2019; rentable): With her directorial debut, Olivia Wilde led the way into a bold new world of raunchy, female-led high school comedies. More earnest than Bottoms, Booksmart likewise focuses on two misfit best friends.

Joy Ride (2023; rentable): Bottoms isn't the only female raunch comedy the summer has brought us. Adele Lim's wild road movie with a mostly Asian cast disappeared from theaters in a blink, but it's funny and heartfelt and deserves a second look.

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