There was something darkly, deliciously special about the way writer/director Emma Seligman and actress Rachel Sennott announced themselves with 2020’s Shiva Baby. A claustrophobic black comedy that indulged in a spiralling, horrific temperament, their collaboration set a certain precedent for the boundary-pushing, topical humour that’s furthered in Bottoms, a wild, oft-violent, sexually liberated high-school comedy that honours John Hughes as much as it punches his mentality in the face.
Seligman and Sennott (who co-wrote the screenplay) clearly have a lot to say, but whilst their premise isn’t perhaps utilised to its full potential, when Bottoms rises to the top, it dominates with an uproarious nature that’s all too easy to embrace – even if you know you shouldn’t.
In the halls of Rockbridge Falls High, PJ (Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edibiri, who, between this, Theater Camp, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Across the Spider-Verse, and The Bear, is having a near-perfect year) are social outcasts. If their lockers aren’t being vandalised with homophobic slurs (though Sennott’s delivery regarding their particular nicknames softens this blow for any potentially triggered viewers), they’re being called out for their “behaviour”, which is basically because they refuse to conform to the school’s penchant for jock admiration.
There’s something inherently amusing about how Seligman and Sennott frame the personality of the high-school itself, with football culture reigning supreme and the players free to wear their uniforms wherever they see fit. It’s also rather telling that the supposedly masculine, heroic star player, Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), feels as if he’s anything but the stereotypes he’d like to lean into. It’s all so deliberate on the parts of its creators, and it’s why Bottoms will ultimately benefit from multiple viewings, as the nuances to these characters – as well as the sheer wildness to much of the film’s background imagery – become more prominent with every inhale.
Jeff, and high-school politics, are merely a mild distraction for PJ and Josie though, as their endgame is the hopeful bedding of Brittany (Kaia Gerber, looking the spitting image of her supermodel mother, Cindy Crawford) and Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), respectively. Isabel, Jeff’s girlfriend and Josie’s secret crush, and Brittany, who freely admits that her personality is so tied to Isabel that she doesn’t have much autonomy herself (it’s a well executed joke, don’t worry), don’t exactly ignore PJ and Josie, but they don’t overtly acknowledge them either, but a mild confrontation between the girls and an overly dramatic Jeff leads to the film’s dirty, bloody narrative hook.
Hoping to avoid punishment for supposedly injuring Jeff, PJ and Josie fabricate the notion that any violence that took place between the parties was a result of their afterschool self-defense class, something they believe is necessary following the revelation that several female students have actually been assaulted. Though there’s a very serious topic bubbling beneath Bottoms‘ surface, Seligman and Sennott attack this with a witty exaggeration, with the class itself coming to fruition merely for PJ and Josie to save face, even though it’s all been created purely so they can get close to their crushes. It helps that fellow outcast Hazel (Ruby Cruz, a riot) perpetuates the myth that PJ and Josie are fresh out of juvie and, whilst inside, killed for survival.
It’s an unruly film for the most part, with Seligman clearly aware it works best when frosting its seriousness in an inflated fashion. The club proving successful and the girls learning to trust each other is a pretty standard narrative move, as is the eventual dramatic arc of PJ and Josie coming to a head over their original intentions and how they view the other in terms of the friendship dynamic. And whilst its the latter subplot that momentarily stalls the film’s more aggressive nature, it thankfully finds its way back to the craziness it initially promised, with a climax that truly does away with decency and reality.
The manner in which Seligman and Sennott attack comedy is truly a thing of beauty. Both Shiva Baby and Bottoms infuse their situational comedy with a darker lining, though, ironically, Bottoms, with its Fight Club-inspired hook, is the lighter of the two. Perhaps because Shiva Baby was a far more independent production there was a sense of freedom in how it could present itself, a freedom that Bottoms mostly adheres to when it commits to the absurd.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Bottoms is now available On Demand in the United States and Canada. It will be released internationally on Prime Video at a later date.