High school can be the best years of your life. It can also be alienating, awkward, lonely, brutal, soul-snuffing, the sort of experience that destroys egos and leaves you scarred. You don’t have to guess which version of young adulthood that P.J. and Josie, the knuckle-bruised and extremely horny heroes at the center of Bottoms, are going through — they more or less radiate locker-room loserdom from the get-go.
These two seniors have been best friends since they were kids. P.J. (Rachel Sennott) is the more manic and ambitious of the two; Josie (The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri) seems like she would recede into herself like a turtle if she could. They’re both queer, and quick to point out that nobody hates them for being gay. The duo are loathed, according to them, because they’re “gay, untalented and ugly.” Both of them can’t wait to be done with school, given that the campus culture revolves around football, jocks, a 20-year gridiron rivalry, football, pep rallies, and football. But they also want to hook up with cheerleaders, and given this is the last year before college, the clock is ticking.
This is how Shiva Baby filmmaker Emma Seligman’s spin on the high-school comedy sets itself up: a meaner, leaner, more uncouth Booksmart, with less inhibitions and sharper teeth. P.J. and Josie are striking out with their respective lust objects, the supermodel-like Brittany (Kaia Gerber) and the slightly more approachable Isabel (Havana Rose Liu). The latter is the girlfriend of the school’s star quarterback (Nicholas Galitzine), which ups the degree of seduction difficulty even further. And when Josie “bumps” the QB’s knee with her car and he goes full drama-queen regarding his “injury” a few weeks before the big game, they go from run-of-the-mill misfits to full-blown social pariahs.
Desperate times require desperate measures. Luckily, P.J. has a plan. She tells the principal they’re starting a self-defense program for women. This helps them avoid suspension. It also means the likelihood of them getting some action has just increased, especially when Brittany and Isabel join. Neither P.J. nor Josie know the first thing about defending themselves. So P.J. just punches her best friend. Josie socks her back. Soon, everyone in the group is kicking the living shit out of each other on a weekly basis. Welcome to their after-school fight club.
And here’s where Bottoms either loses you or completely has you in the palm of its clammy, bloody hand. Shiva Baby was a movie that operated on the tightening of screws, trapping its title character — also played by Rachel Sennott — at a funeral with an ex-girlfriend, overbearing parents, her “sugar daddy” lover, and his family. It’s a claustrophobic cringe-comedy, operating at almost unbearable levels of intensity. (A colleague referred to it as “Uncut Gems but for Jewish female Angelenos.”) Seligman’s follow-up, cowritten by Sennott, is the exact opposite of that: it’s a wild, anarchic satire fueled by chaos energy, and gives the feeling it’s about to derail itself at any given moment. There’s an off-the-cuffness to its raunchiness, which is then offset even more by montages of women going full Tyler Durden on each other. Some viewers will be turned off by the violence. The women themselves, however, seem to have an On-switch flipped.
It isn’t surprising that these women find a sense of empowerment through this sham encounter group-turned-brawlfest, or that female rage plays a huge part in Bottoms’ overall sense of humor and transgression. This is a comedy in which, when it’s suggested that they actually talk about their feelings instead of smacking each other, P.J. wearily asks, “Ok, so, um… who here has been raped?” (When one person raises their hand, P.J. says “gray-area stuff” counts, too. All hands go up.) Jokes about school bombings butt up against set pieces revolving around Marshawn Lynch’s perpetually confused history teacher — yes, that Marshawn Lynch; the NFL player formerly known as Beast Mode has great comic chops — and Porky’s-level horndogging. The gasps from the audience are part of Seligman and Sennott’s plan, as is the notion of introducing an unapologetically amped-up queer element to wild & crazy high-school comedies. Not to mention a subversive level of smarts, too: When the reasons for the club are eventually made public, one member cries, “This is like the second wave all over again!!!”
And Bottoms also seems destined to launch a new big-screen comedy team. If you’ve seen Sennott and Edebiri’s Comedy Central web shorts Ayo and Rachel Are Single, you know that these two longtime collaborators have a vibe that’s part Hope-Crosby, part Broad City, and all millennial angst dialed up to 11. This movie gives them a chance to embed that double act in a narrative that both plays off their rapport and lets it breath, consistently throwing Sennott’s irresistible aggressive force against Adebiri’s reticent immovable object. The Bear star is easily the MVP here, even in a cast with zero weak links (shout-outs to Ruby Cruz, Zamani Wilder, and Summer Joy Campbell as fellow fight club misfits); her silent reaction shots are killer, much less her crack timing. But it’s the two of them together, along with Seligman’s understanding of what makes this duo more than just two funny people saying outrageous things, that makes the film work. That, and its pure shamelessness around sex, feminism, teen nihilism, dim-witted masculinity run amok, and the fucked-up hormonal free-fall that is adolescence.
To say the SXSW crowd embraced this wild-eyed war cry of a film when it premiered last night at the festival would be underselling the reaction. You knew it would play big with the Saturday prime-slot crowd, but you could also tell how it struck a chord with the audience members who, during the Q&A, admitted that they needed this film. All we really wanted to do, the cast and creators kept saying, was to make the sort of movie we wished we’d had when we were young. They namechecked a host of influences, from obvious (But I’m a Cheerleader) to cultish (D.E.B.S.). Yet the one film Bottoms most resembled, if you had to compare it to anything, was a certain landmark teen movie that didn’t get mentioned. What Seligman, Sennott and Edebiri have given us is nothing less than a Heathers for this generation. It hits you, and it feels like a kiss.