The easiest way to describe Emma Seligman’s sophomore feature, “Bottoms”? It’s hilariously weird. Director Seligman and star Rachel Sennott reunite in their follow-up to “Shiva Baby,” taking as hard a pivot from their 2020 breakout (and a script they co-wrote) as they come.
This is a queer teen sex comedy that wears its influences on its sleeve, yet still resembles no other film. It cements Seligman and Sennott as two of the most exciting young voices in cinema today, delivering a hit in the making with a tone that brings movies like “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Not Another Teen Movie” to a whole new generation.
Before the film’s premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, audiences were told to prepare themselves for an experience that could not be described. That’s pretty much what they got. This is a film set in a weird, parallel world with almost cartoon-like logic, a world heightened to the point of self-serious parody, where the high school’s biggest jock-himbo has his face plastered on every surface of the school and there is a giant mural of himself as Adam in “The Creation of Adam” adorning the cafeteria, a world where the feminism teacher openly reads a nude magazine called “Divorced and Happy” during class — he’s played by Marshawn Lynch, a highlight of the movie.
It is a tone that could easily not have worked, and it does only because Seligman and Sennott pack the script with so many jokes that you don’t have time to really think about whether one joke landed for you before getting hit with another one that has you shaking and cackling. It helps that Seligman fully embraces an absurdist tone and packs the film with visual gags to sell the idea — like the aforementioned mural. It is not dissimilar to the way “Wet Hot American Summer” used its ridiculous casting to ease you into its wacky world before introducing its end-of-the-world subplot.
Here, feral students are kept in cages, murder is just a regular thing that happens, and it is all shrugged off as normal. Granted, the film’s humor is often uncomfortable and “problematic,” particularly by the time you get to the third joke about bombing a school, but it’s the tone that sells the less savory parts of the script.
It is in this absurd world that we meet PJ (Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri), two best friends who are at the bottom of the high school social ladder — they are losers and they’re gay, a bad combination in a school that, again, quite literally worships its straightest male. After an incident in which the two confront the head jock-himbo after trying to hit on his girlfriend, the popular cheerleader Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), PJ and Josie are accused of “assaulting” the star football player and threatened with expulsion.
Thanks to some easily spread rumors about Josie’s time in juvie, the two manage to spin their assault charges by taking advantage of the (literal) blood feud between their school and their football rival into making an official, school-sanctioned fight club. Granted, their excuse is they’re teaching girls self-defense and also raising solidarity among girls, but the truth is it is literally just a fight club — and one they created solely to try and hook up with cheerleaders.
Unlike “Shiva Baby,” which used tight shots and quick edits to create tension, Seligman squeezes every ounce of awkward humor from the characters in “Bottoms” by letting the camera linger in order until you are just about to start cringing. Yet, what is most impressive is Seligman’s skills at building and executing action scenes. This is a movie about a fight club, after all, so fists are often up. There is one particularly bloody, big-scale fight that has clearer and more intricate choreography than most action scenes in big blockbuster movies of the past year.
At the bottom of the film’s knotted plot and raunchy jokes, however, lies a rather poignant story about female friendship and empowerment. Though it starts as a genuine desire to protect themselves from a rival school that is literally kidnapping and beating up students (free of consequence, one might add), the girls get more out of the club than just good fighting skills.
Though the focus is always on PJ and Josie — Sennott and Edebiri are phenomenal, with the film serving as an “Ayo and Rachel Are Single” reunion — the supporting cast really makes the movie shine. From the rest of the fight club members, each one with their own unique personality that manages to become more than archetypes even when they don’t have that much screentime, to the football players baffled and enraged by the girl’s fight club taking attention away from their games, “Bottoms” has a terrific ensemble.
“Bottoms” is an ambitious sophomore feature from a director who is just getting started, one that can craft both a hilariously surreal teen sex comedy and marry it with one hell of an eye for action sequences. Josie and PJ may be at the bottom of the food chain, but Sennott and Seligman are anything but.
“Bottoms” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. MGM and Orion Pictures will release it at a later date.