The words “cult classic” are thrown around by critics with relentless abandon, but Bottoms, the followup film from Canadian director Emma Seligman is bloody, bawdy and just downright demented enough to enter the vaunted pantheon of other chaotic high school comedies such as Heathers, Booksmart and Bring it On.
On the surface the setup seems almost quaint. A Gen-Z update of a classic John Hughes-ian formula: PJ and Josie are in their final year at Rock Ridge High and determined to finally hook up with the girls of their dreams. Being gay isn’t the issue — being massive losers who radiate awkwardness and desperation is.
As PJ, Rachel Sennott has confidence to spare but also a low simmering resentment at her fate. There’re so many people she disdains, but she’s desperate to be accepted. The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri, as Josie, is almost PJ’s opposite number, a quiet cerebral weirdo who escapes into hilarious, remarkably detailed fantasies of what her future life as a lonely lesbian would looks like.
While the terrain, a high school in Anytown USA, seems familiar, it’s the degrees to which Seligman and Sennott, who collaborated on the screenplay during the pandemic, push these familiar elements into the realm of absurd that makes Bottoms stand out.
After meeting Sennott while studying film at NYU, Seligman burst on the scene with 2020’s Shiva Baby, a more grounded, but equally hilarious story about a young woman caught between her Sugar Daddy and family as they gathered to sit shiva. The film was funny, perceptive and announced Sennott as a star in the making.
With her second feature, Seligman is reaching for more than just observational comedy. Inspired by movies such as the satirical and silly Wet Hot American Summer, the world of Bottoms is skewed and unhinged. The students of Rock Ridge worship Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), the all-American football captain, with an almost religious intensity. Half-naked posters of him adorn the walls of the high school. So when PJ and Josie bump Jeff with their car in an attempt to protect one of their crushes, the principal summons them to class on the PA with a terse “Could the ugly, untalented gays please report to the principal’s office?”
An attempt to explain their actions leads to the idea of a self-defence class for girls. With the attacks from a rival school on the rise, the principal gives his weary approval.
While Josie is naturally hesitant, PJ sees the fight club as a brilliant ploy to meet new girls. Rather than cheerleaders and hotties, the first wave of attendees is a cornucopia of oddballs and outsiders. Stella-Rebecca, a part-time model looking to protect herself from a stalker. Annie, an isolated Black Republican. Then there’s Sylvie who is looking to beat up her stepdad, driven to the edge by his insistence on… Friday movie nights.
With a David Fincher-like zealousness, soon the girls are pummelling each other with abandon. And as with the comedy, Bottoms fully commits, if not revels, in the violence. Of course, such a club couldn’t go unsupervised.
Enter Bottoms‘ MVP, former NFLer Marshawn Lynch as the social studies teacher Mr. G. Much more than stunt casting, Lynch’s drawling delivery and lackadaisical attitude is infectious, whether he’s spouting off about his divorce or his own twisted take on feminism.
Far from precious, Bottoms’ very millennial, and shockingly cynical view of feminism and politics is part of what sets it apart. And yet, for all of PJ’s scheming, the club soon beings to work, giving weirdos a sense of belonging and our two heroes a chance of getting in their dream girls’ pants.
But for all its archaic energy, Bottoms succumbs to the classic rom-com formula a little too neatly; the inevitable attraction, followed by the equally inevitable reveal of a secret that could tear them asunder. Still, these are minor peccadillos. What makes Bottoms sing and worth seeing are the performances, the whip-smart writing and a fearlessness in what it finds funny. Long may it reign until the next high school contender comes along.