Bottoms: Emma Seligman delivers a knockout high-school sex comedy

Two teen girls set up a “fight club” in a bid to attract cheerleaders in this blood-soaked comedy that makes you wince, laugh, and pause to reflect before the next pithy one-liner lands.

7 November 2023

By Clara Bradbury-Rance

Ayo Edebiri as Josie and Rachel Sennott as PJ in Bottoms (2023)
Sight and Sound

In the time-honoured tradition of the teen sex romp, PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) are willing to do anything to lose their respective virginities before they leave high school. But there’s a problem: they’re neither cool nor male enough to date the popular girls they have harboured crushes on for years. Then, after a rumour about their “summer in juvie” gives them a sudden, unwitting reputation as badasses, they set up a “fight club” in the name of female solidarity and self-defence but really for the sake of attracting cheerleaders.

This comedy from Shiva Baby (2020) director Emma Seligman is the latest feminist reimagining of a bro-dominated genre: Blockers (2018) and Booksmart (2019) insisted that, funnily enough, girls can be just as horny as boys. Bottoms shows that they can likewise be just as shallow, objectifying, and callous. PJ and Josie’s aim in setting up a self-defence club is not in fact female empowerment and solidarity but rather “putting our fingers inside each other.”

Bottoms follows a conventional narrative: girl likes girl, makes up a story to get girl, gets girl, can’t figure out how to come clean to girl, finally… well, I won’t spoil the ending. In an interview about their favourite “teen” films (a genre continuing to expand beyond its traditional limits), Seligman, Sennott and Edebiri – who studied together at NYU – juggle references not only to Mean Girls (2004) and Bring It On (2000), but also to Battle Royale (2000) and Kill Bill (2003). Suffice to say that Bottoms owes as much to the last two films of that list as it does to the first.

The film captures the paradox of lesbian objectification; one minute lesbianism is a spectacle, the next it is mundanely invisible. Similarly, homophobic abuse may be represented as everyday and tedious rather than dramatic or traumatic, but the film still articulates the role of homophobia in shaping Josie and PJ and how they relate to themselves and to the world. They may have “f*ggot” painted on their lockers but, PJ insists, she and Josie aren’t hated because they’re gay but because they’re “gay, untalented, and ugly.”

With this quip and many others, Sennott plays PJ’s sarcastic melancholy and internalised sexism with the same harsh wit that she delivered in Shiva Baby; Edebiri, cast in the writers’ minds long before The Bear (Hulu, 2022-) launched her screen career, effortlessly embodies Josie’s awkward romantic incompetence. Not all the characters are as fleshed out as the central duo, however, and once the ensemble is launched the writers don’t quite know what to do with a meandering middle act that must follow a knock-out start.

Despite its absurd comic premise, the film doesn’t shy away from the explicit appeal of a teen girl “fight club”: its members are “terrified” of cis male violence. When asked if they’ve experienced rape – “grey area stuff counts too” – nearly everyone raises their hand. The moment is the most sombre in a feminist sex comedy that somehow manages to wear trauma on its sleeve. Blood-soaked scenes make you wince and laugh and pause to reflect before the next pithy one-liner lands. As Avril Lavigne – a relic of an earlier generation’s angst-ridden adolescence – sings on the soundtrack, “why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?”. Bottoms makes things complicated, allowing for and revelling in the necessary contradictions of queer feminist representation. It is a risky strategy, and the film doesn’t always get it right. But when it does, it offers a rare comic bliss: silly, poignant, riotous and very, very funny.

Bottoms is in UK cinemas now. 

 

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