Emma Seligman follows up ’Shiva Baby’ with this skewed high school comedy about a female student fight club
Dir: Emma Seligman. US. 2023. 92mins
Taking dead aim at high-school comedies — not to mention real-life heteronormative tendencies — Bottoms is somewhat uneven but consistently engaging, critical of the way adolescence is portrayed in cinema yet sympathetic to young people who wish their experience emulated what they see on screen. Not quite as distinctive as her sharp debut Shiva Baby, director and co-writer Emma Seligman’s follow-up revolves around gay best friends who start a fight club in the hopes of losing their virginity — leading to broken bones, a shocking amount of blood and a twisted look at female empowerment.
Looks like a typical high-school film, but something is constantly off.
Premiering at SXSW, which is where Shiva Baby also launched, Bottoms reunites Seligman with star Rachel Sennott, who also serves as co-writer. The story’s teen-comedy tropes – many of which get subverted – will give the film a nifty marketing hook, and the fact that Cocaine Bear director Elizabeth Banks is one of the film’s producers should help draw attention. The prickly, knowing tone pegs this as an edgier proposition, with plenty of comparisons to Heathers, the gold standard for caustic portraits of the hell that is high school.
PJ (Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) are uncool teenagers both nursing crushes on seemingly unattainable cheerleader classmates: Brittany (Kaia Gerber) and Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), respectively. Desperate to find a way to connect with these girls, PJ and Josie hatch a plan to start a group that teaches women self-defence. In truth, though, it is really just a fight club. To the friends’ shock, the group gains popularity, tempting in not just Brittany and Isabel but also several other female students.
From the start, Seligman toys with genre cliches, placing her two protagonists in the most predictable scenario imaginable: it is these nerdy outcasts’ senior year and they want to have sex before they graduate. Yet Bottoms quickly announces itself as its own wilfully weird creation, although it would be inaccurate to describe this film as a spoof. Rather, Seligman stitches together the tenets of the high-school comedy with PJ and Josie’s awkward reality, whose messiness keeps imposing itself on the script’s self-aware plot conventions. The result is a picture that is almost an uncanny-valley simulation — it looks like a typical high-school film, but something is constantly off.
As she did with Shiva Baby, Seligman shows a keen eye for her characters’ mortification, albeit without her previous picture’s precisely modulated discomfort. By design, Bottoms is a broader, more outrageous comedy, and unfortunately the jokes are not as cutting. But her two leads — both in their late 20s and, amusingly, obviously too old to be high-schoolers — ground the story in something real, no matter how much Seligman pushes believability as PJ and Josie pursue their fight club.
Whereas David Fincher’s Fight Club was a grim study of masculinity, Bottoms uses the same plot device to investigate how teen girls view their world. Seligman is especially scathing in her critique of high school’s patriarchal rituals; the cheerleaders’ routines are intentionally banal and blandly titillating, while the football players are hunky, monosyllabic dullards who are worshipped like gods. When PJ and Josie roam the hallways, a patronising poster on the wall reminds female students to ’smile more’. If Fight Club’s punishing milieu meant to satirise men’s panic about their fading relevance, Seligman’s surprisingly brutal fight club, ironically, is the one place her characters feel safe.
Not that Bottoms fails to hit on deeper emotions. As often as Seligman skewers the superficiality and closed-mindedness of high school, which is often reflected in films that romanticise such annoyances, she understands how seductive those big-screen fantasies can be. One of Bottoms’ best sequences involves a completely unironic homage to the sort of failing-in-love scenes we often see in teen comedies, with both PJ and Josie finally stealing a moment with their crushes. The sincerity of the execution — and the bittersweet juxtaposition of the outcome of those two scenes— suggests how young people are wise enough to see through cinema’s unreality while stubbornly clinging to its promise of a happy ending.
Production company: Brownstone Productions
International sales: MGM, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Elizabeth Banks, Max Handelman, Alison Small
Screenplay: Emma Seligman & Rachel Sennott
Cinematography: Maria Rusche
Production design: Nate Jones
Editing: Hannah Park
Music: Charli XCX & Leo Birenberg
Main cast: Rachel Sennott, Ayo Edebiri, Ruby Cruz, Havana Rose Liu, Kaia Gerber, Nicholas Galitzine, Miles Fowler, Punkie Johnson