BOTTOMS Review: Hilarious, Original, Must-See Queer Teen Comedy
Rachel Sennott and Emma Seligman ('Shiva Baby') team up again for a subversive queer teen comedy.
Subversive comedies are few and far between. Subversive teen comedies are even fewer and even farther between. Subversive queer teen comedies are probably the rarest of rare.
Luckily, filmmaker Emma Seligman, the writer-director of Shiva Baby, a sit-up and pay-attention debut that put “cringe” in cringe comedy, decided to make her second film, the aptly titled Bottoms, exactly that, a subversive queer teen comedy.
As sex- and queer-positive as any film with non-cis gender characters can be, Bottoms rarely flags or stumbles as it delivers an amazingly consistent series of jokes, verbal and physical, centered around two predictably awkward, predictably self-centered teens with one and only one goal in mind: To lose their virginity before the end of the senior year in high school.
So far, so familiar, but Seligman, working from a screenplay she honed over six years with Shiva Baby star Rachel Sennott, shifts the focus — and thus the center — away from typically heteronormative conventions and tropes and towards Sennott’s unmistakably queer-identifying, sex-obsessed character PJ, and her best friend forever, Josie (Ayo Edebiri). Together, they’ve somehow made it through three grueling years of high school with minimal impact, coasting on their co-dependent friendship and unfulfilled, seemingly impossible (sex) dreams involving PJ’s longtime crush, Brittany (Kaia Gerber), a cheerleader, and the object of Josie’s romantic attention/obsession, Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), also a cheerleader.
Practically invisible in the grand scheme of high-school things, unsurprising given their relatively low social status, PJ and Josie, along with perpetual third wheel Hazel (Ruby Cruz, the film’s stealth MVP), seemed destined to coast through their senior year unnoticed, unwanted, and ultimately, forgotten once high school ends and the pre-college summer begins. In what amounts to a major ask involving a sizable suspension of disbelief, Seligman and Sennott begin to add layers of unreality to Bottoms, from rumors of a literally bloodthirsty, rival high school to the dim-bulb jocks -- including Isabel’s longtime boyfriend, Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), the quarterback and captain of the football team -- who never take off their football uniforms. And a fast-approaching rivalry game casts a literal pall over the first part of the school year.
When those rumors of the vicious rival school turn out to be true in one respect (classmates beaten up offscreen), PJ and Josie, a little bored and definitely desperate, hatch an ill-conceived plan to start a fight club (i.e., self-defense class). Needing an adult sponsor, they invite Mr. G (a scene-stealing turn from ex-NFL running back Marshawn Lynch) to oversee their club.
Eager to participate in extracurriculars, not to mention support feminism, or what he thinks qualifies as feminism, Mr. G agrees. Lynch, a player once known for his bruising running style (i.e., “Beast Mode”), eagerly leans into the role, giving his performance as the wayward, profanity-prone teacher a reliable, sometimes even believable, mix of earnestness, pathos, and heart.
While the fight club morphs into something “real” for its participants. it’s intended, unspoken purpose also brings PJ and Josie into regular proximity with Brittany and Isabel. Seligman and Sennott smartly give both characters depth (Isabel more than Brittany), eventually elevating them from borderline caricatures to self-willed, self-motivated characters with actual agency.
Like practically every character who crosses paths with PJ and Josie, they’re also the source of various jokes at their expense, though the humor directed in their general direction tends to be gentler than it is with other characters. After all, Brittany and Isabel represent not just romantic objects of affection, but something more.
Seligman and Sennott save their broadest, most ludicrous stabs at humor for Jeff, an over-sensitive sort with the emotional maturity of a toddler, and a football team driven and defined by an outdated, ultimately destructive mode of masculinity. The football players not only wear their uniforms everywhere and everyday, they act and react with an over-aggressiveness that would be frightening in the real world, but hilarious here. For all their outsized, borderline violent behavior, though, Seligman and Sennott turn the tables on the football team in a third act that firmly shifts Bottoms from reality-adjacent to unreal, surreal, and even hyperreal.
As deliriously cathartic and shockingly well-staged as the third-act climax turns out to be, it also runs the risk of alienating an otherwise go-along-to-get-along audience, but that was a risk, a worthwhile one in this writer’s opinion, that Seligman and Sennott gleefully embraced. On the strength of Shiva Baby and Bottoms, what Seligman and Sennott do next, individually and collectively, immediately moves to must-see status.
Bottoms opens Friday, August 25, 2023, exclusively in movie theaters, via MGM.
- Emma Seligman
- Emma Seligman
- Rachel Sennott
- Ayo Edebiri
- Dagmara Dominczyk
- Nicholas Galitzine