The high school experience is more primal than we care to admit: classroom cliques that are barely indistinguishable from warring tribes; social and biological pressures to seek a mate which can be as overbearing as acne; and the occasional, actual hallway beatdown are all part and parcel with being an American teenager. Of course high school movies have been less afraid to speak these truths to their target audiences than parents. Many, in fact, lean into the feeling of it’s you versus the world. Yet few have made it as literal, or punch-drunk giddy, as Emma Seligman’s Bottoms, the first coming of age flick that revolves around an after-school fight club.
In a genre defined by pent-up emotional stresses and triggers, Bottoms lands devastating blows of laughter by being blunt and unafraid to smile through the absurdities of adolescent life—even if that means revealing broken teeth and blood dribbling down the chin along the way. The brainchild of both Seligman and her frequent leading lady Rachel Sennott, Bottoms sees the Shiva Baby pair reunite, now as co-screenwriters and co-conspirators. Together, they plot a subversive attack on coming of age yarns, even as they’ve made a probable cult classic in the form; it’s certainly one of the most original with the setup being about two queer girls who think their best shot at dating cheerleaders is to punch them in the face.
This pair of unorthodox suitors are PJ (Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri). The two have been friends since the first grade (and only friends), but despite each enjoying a healthy amount of motormouth charisma, they’ve found themselves relegated to the role of desperate wallflowers in a high school transfixed by the football team’s season schedule. Lonely, horny, and eager to lose their virginity to star cheerleaders Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber)—who, by the by, both have boyfriends—PJ and Josie are thus fine with letting a false rumor spread about them going to juvvie. Better still, they use it as a pretext to launch an extracurricular club that oblivious teacher Mr. G (a scene-stealing Marshawn Lynch) is told is about self-defense for young girls. Everyone else knows, however, that it’s a bare-knuckled fight club, only without the creepy Tyler Durden baggage.
On the other side of a riotous premiere at SXSW, Bottoms feels like a waylaid coming out party for Seligman and Sennott, whose new movie arrived in Austin with the fanfare of a conquering hero after Seligman’s directorial debut, Shiva Baby, saw its in-person debut cut short at the same festival in 2020 because of COVID-19. Despite that setback, Shiva Baby still became something of a Gen-Z hit on HBO Max, which has in turn raised attention for Seligman and Sennott’s immediate follow-up. Yet one of the most impressive things about Bottoms is how startlingly, confidently apart it feels from Shiva Baby.
Seligman and Sennott’s first collaboration was essentially a chamber piece, largely taking place at a memorial service during a single afternoon. More acutely, that 2020 picture was grounded in a grueling verisimilitude wherein the comedy was derived from cringing at Sennott’s disorganized college kid on the most awkward day of her life. By contrast, Bottoms demurs from reality, instead favoring a high-concept where a group of 17-year-olds share fisticuffs and bomb-making schematics with an easygoing devil-may-care attitude. At times the effect can be outright cartoonish and, indeed, the anarchic glee of the storytelling shares more than a little with Looney Tunes.
However, the strongest inspiration on Bottoms appears to be Daniel Waters’ screenplay for Heathers (1988), another deeply satirical teen comedy that wallowed in what others might deem bad taste (Bottoms even includes a few passing jabs at the menacing Goth loner with far too much ennui as he furiously draws in his sketchbook). Bottoms likewise pulls from an entire anachronistic spectrum of ‘80s iconography with its depiction of a high school so obsessed with its football team that all the players wear their jerseys and gear into every class, and the school’s star quarterback, simply “Jeff” (Nicholas Galitzine), is afforded his own PSA announcements.
The film is thus set in an anachronistic Neverland where students also use early-2000s flip phones and yellow pages, and PJ’s dress attire is a cross between an episode of Full House and Lady Bird. The approach intentionally courts camp, creating just enough whimsy to allow you to laugh when Edebiri offers Sennott a right hook across the face, or the cheerleaders’ idea of a pep rally routine involves pouring cups of water onto one of their teammates’ shirts.
In such a convivial environment, there is no line or semblance of reality Seligman won’t cross for a gag. And there are few funnier than whenever Edebiri goes on another virtuoso rant of teenage insecurity, the best of which involves Josie resigning herself to the lifestyle of a friendless lesbian who’ll need to marry a closeted evangelical pastor in order to feign happiness. Seriously, Edebiri is a real discovery, often seeming to improvise a frenzied joie de vivre as a restless bundle of nerves so tightly wound she’ll convince you that she’s oblivious to her honor roll levels of charisma. She and Sennott also pair well in a buddy routine that fires at the ratatattat pace of a screwball comedy.
There will undoubtedly be comparisons made between their two-hander chemistry and Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, which also premiered at SXSW and featured a queer protagonist. This would be a disservice to both films, however. While each see teens desperate to lose their V-cards before graduation, Booksmart was a traditional, raunchy high school laugher in the Superbad mold with a distinctly feminine and Gen-Z point-of-view. Conversely, Bottoms is much more intensely aware of the singularity of the queer adolescent experience, and in this way Bottoms is more timeless.
Here is a film less concerned with snapshotting the youth experience of 2023 than it is in laughing about an eternal one for folks who are isolated by feelings of attraction, alienation, and sometimes just old-fashioned thirsting. Bottoms explores that with a lusty cheerfulness and a sense of kitsch about as subtle as a dropkick to the face. There are, in fact, many dropkicks to the face, as well as the stomach, the back of the head, and maybe a kidney or two. At one point the choreography even throws in a sword.
It’s all so silly that it ends up being kind of badass.
Bottoms premiered at SXSW on March 11.