By Carter James
The genre of high school movies has been in purgatory for too long. Recent releases have either been period pieces or painfully trying to be as contemporary as possible. Gen Z has not had their “Clueless” or “The Breakfast Club” like previous generations have.
This is where the comedy trio of “Bottoms,” co-writer and director Emma Seligman, co-writer and star Rachel Sennott and star Ayo Edebri, come in.
“Bottoms” is the brainchild of Seligman and Sennott, who started working on the film while attending New York University together. Being touted as “Fight Club” for lesbians, the film wonderfully achieves that goal and sets the standard for what films made by and for Gen Z should be.
The genius of these three women was not unfamiliar to me before seeing “Bottoms.” Seligman’s feature debut, also starring Sennott, “Shiva Baby,” was one of my favorite films of 2021. Ever since then, I knew I would watch whatever Seligman would direct and whatever Sennott would act in. Edebri was also a clear stand out as one of the stars of “The Bear,” so I’m also locked into whatever she makes next.
Because of my liking for these three, and coming of age films in general, I was already sold. What I needed to be filled in on, however, was queer cinema. I knew if I was going to properly review such a landmark film for queer filmmakers and audiences, I would need to gain knowledge of the subgenre as a whole.
After initially seeing “Bottoms” in theaters, I decided to bridge my gaps of knowledge together by watching “D.E.B.S” and “But I’m a Cheerleader.” These films are contemporary staples of the subgenre. They succinctly display how camp is used within queer film.
Though camp has been associated with films such as Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” the term derives from queer film theory. As defined by Susan Sontag in her essay, “Notes on Camp,” camp is, “A sensibility that revels in artifice, stylization, theatricalization, irony, playfulness, and exaggeration rather than content.”
Perdue.edu highlights how “some postmodernists, feminists, and queer theorists” believe that camp works against heteronormativity because of how it questions the construct of gender. Knowing camp is key to understanding queer cinema because reality is the last thing these films are grounded in.
The premise of “Bottoms” is simple: two lesbians start a self-defense club to hook up with cheerleaders. Though the film is short and straightforward, it is not exactly your typical high school movie.
The film takes the tropes of high school films and satirizes them to the nth degree, while keeping the heart and sappiness of coming-of-age romcoms. Where films such as “High School Musical” made musical theatre seem like a norm to its high school world, “Bottoms” makes vulgarity the currency in which students and the faculty trade.
Protagonists PJ and Josie, played by Sennott and Edebri respectively, are publicly known as the “ugly, untalented gays” and are reminded of that throughout the film. The school’s football team is the sole focus of the school, as they count down by the day for the big rivalry game. Jeff, the star quarterback played brilliantly by Nicholas Galitzine, is revered as a god—where his team pampers him and the school bows down to him. He and his team have a biblical mural in the cafeteria. The most absurd thing about the film is the idea around the school rivalry. The front for the self-defense club is successful because Hungtington, the rival school, has been harassing women. This absurdity is further reiterated when the audience learn that Huntington has a history of murdering players during the game.
With a world full of shocking absurdities, PJ and Josie find a way to be scummiest and funniest people in their high school. Sennott and Edebri have cemented their names in history as a legendary comedy duo, because, once they get going, they don’t stop. Their riffing is effortless, constantly building off of each other and never stealing the spotlight from one another. When something ridiculous happens in the film, the two already have a quip or back-and-forth ready to spit out.
Because the absurdity and camp of the world is taken with full seriousness, the comedy wonderfully flourishes. The rest of the cast gives iconic and scene-stealing moments whenever they are on screen as well. Marshawn Lynch is the MVP of the cast because he shows how his acting career should’ve started much sooner.
Though its technically a satirical comedy, it never feels like the film is breaking the fourth wall to point out everything is ridiculous, allowing for issues such as homophobia and misogyny to be pointed out in a clever way, rather than just acknowledging these are still issues.
At its core, “Bottoms” has plenty of heart. There are plenty of tender moments where the high school absurdity and the femcel facades of PJ and Josie are taken away. What’s left is a story about how self-centered we can be when searching for love. PJ and Josie may have just wanted to lose their virginity, but they learned that their bad intentions lead them to understanding their peers rather than commodifying them.
Great comedy and character work aside, this is one of the best-looking comedies I’ve ever seen. Seligman is only 28 years old, and effortlessly shows off her talent in only her second feature film. “Bottoms” was a giant leap for her in terms of scale and budget, as “Shiva Baby” is less than 90 minutes, and mostly took place in a house. “Bottoms” is ambitious and action packed with multiple set pieces that most blockbuster directors would have trouble shooting at the level of skill and competence Seligman shows in frame.
The cinematography of the film is gorgeous and a clear standout from most high school movies. Cinematographer Maria Rusche has distinct lens and lighting choices, giving the film a shallow and anamorphic look that’s rich with depth. Production and costume design is what sells you the world of “Bottoms.” No character looks the same, nor do they look like their clothes came from mannequins at Old Navy. Charli XCX and Leo Birenbirg’s score is great and has a fun use of electronic music that adds to the teen angst that seeps through the frame.
“Bottoms” is an absolute blast from start to finish. Even starting out of the gate with pure camp and absurdity, the film still finds a way to one up the last shocking or hilarious moment. This film embraces the tropes of high school films and uses the staples of the queer subgenre to be one of the few movies that truly speaks to Gen Z, rather than berating us with trends and stereotypes. The trio of Seligman, Sennott and Edebri have more than proven that they’re heralding in a new era of comedy, and I’m more than excited to see where they take the genre next.