Shiva Baby writer and director Emma Seligman teams back up with its star Rachel Sennott for Bottoms, another sex comedy that’s paradoxically weirder and somehow more mainstream than Seligman’s 2020 debut.
As co-writers this time, Seligman and Sennott have created a vision of modern high school life so farcical that it occasionally makes John Hughes High from Not Another Teen Movie seem authentic by comparison. Football players are effeminate wimps who dance to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” during chore time, while cheerleaders forgo choreographed routines in favor of wet T-shirt displays. A prominently displayed poster in the hallway implores, “You’re prettier when you SMILE! He could be looking at you right now!”
My advice for those going into this movie is don’t take it too seriously because it certainly does not take itself seriously.
Bottoms stars Sennott as PJ, a brash but awkward high schooler who spends almost all of her time with the comparatively more reserved Josie (Ayo Edebiri) as they pine for a pair of cheerleaders. PJ fancies Brittany (Kaia Gerber), while Josie has a thing for Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), though neither have the social currency to make the relationships happen.
A so-called violent altercation with star quarterback Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine) causes Josie to lie to their principal about a self-defense class that she runs with PJ, one they subsequently start when they get the sense it could draw Brittany and Isabel in. Loosely supervised by their teacher Mr. G (Marshawn Lynch), the program quickly devolves into a “fight club” where classmates like Hazel (Ruby Cruz) use the opportunity to vent their frustrations through fisticuffs.
The central conceit of Bottoms plays with Gen Z’s concepts of masculinity vs. femininity and spectrum sexuality, but its treatment of the material harkens back to pervy throwback comedies from Animal House to Revenge of the Nerds. Anyone going into this film expecting something more buttoned-up because it depicts a generation some perceive as “perpetually offended” might be surprised how far the humor goes in places. There were a couple jokes involving sexual assault and suicide that I thought tested the boundaries of good taste and even though my laughter was laced with nervousness, I laughed nonetheless. Some of the seemingly one-off bits also set up running jokes, as when Josie uses shorthand with the school janitor to ask him to paint over presumably often-written homophobic slurs on her and PJ’s lockers.
Though it’s not as strong a film as Booksmart, Bottoms feels like even more of a spiritual successor to Superbad than Booksmart does in hindsight. Sennott channels the loudmouth desperation of Jonah Hill’s Seth, while Edebiri echoes a placid sweetness similar to that of Michael Cera’s Evan. Like Hill in Superbad, Sennott occasionally pushes her character into places of unpleasantness that can make her difficult to root for, but her comedic sensibilities remain strong regardless. Edebiri continues her superb streak of summer successes with a winning combination of brains and charm that flourishes most during the movie’s myriad scenes of improvisation.
But the biggest surprise is Lynch, the former NFL running back whose comedy career may have begun the day he repeated the phrase “I’m here so I won’t get fined” to the media leading up to Super Bowl XLIX. He has a great knack for delivery and I hope directors continue to find ways to use “Beast Mode” in comedies down the road.
Like her 78-minute feature debut Shiva Baby, Seligman paces Bottoms breathlessly, barely allowing for any character development and sometimes stepping over jokes that could use a little more screen time. There’s a subplot involving a conniving footballer played by Miles Fowler that is such a cliché that the excuse Sennott and Seligman would likely come up with about how it’s making fun of said cliché doesn’t quite cut it. The film works best when it briefly subverts teen comedy beats rather than relying on them for the narrative, as when a female classmate proclaims, “I’m going to reverse-stalk my stalker!” after Josie delivers an impassioned speech.
At the end of the day, the most important aspect of a comedy is the strength of its jokes and more often than not, the laughs in Bottoms are tops.
New movies coming this weekend
Playing in theaters is A Haunting in Venice, a Hercule Poirot mystery starring Kenneth Branagh and Kyle Allen, in which the famed detective has another case to solve after a séance he reluctantly attends produces a murder.
Streaming on Netflix is Love at First Sight, a romantic comedy starring Haley Lu Richardson and Ben Hardy about a couple of passengers who spontaneously begin to fall for each other on their international flight from New York to London.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is A Million Miles Away, a true story starring Michael Peña and Rosa Salazar which tells the tale of the first migrant farmworker to travel to space.