If 2022 was the year we saw the first mainstream gay romcom (Bros), 2023 is the year we’re seeing the first mainstream lesbian romcom … slash-fight club movie? Maybe?
Yes indeed, that’s what Bottoms is. Emma Seligman’s follow-up to 2020’s Shiva Baby is a sharp blow to the solar plexus of the high school coming-of-age movie, telling it from the perspective of two lesbian weirdos who need to reinforce their lie about spending the summer in juvenile hall, so they form a girls self-defence club at school that is basically an excuse to punch each other in the face.
“Weirdos” is no term of judgement or othering. It’s how PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edibiri) would characterise themselves, which has led to them being on the outside looking in despite being gay. Yes, I said “despite.” Bottoms presents us a post-woke world where if you’re gay and talented, you’re a superstar, but if you’re gay and untalented, you’re just as much of a loser as anybody else. Rockbridge Falls High School has gotten past the stereotypes of yore in some respects, but not in others, as the football players and cheerleaders are still the kings and queens of the school, each so fully embedded in their roles that the jocks are never seen out of uniform.
PJ and Josie are spazzes who each have crushes on one of the cheerleaders, Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) for Josie and Brittany (Kaia Gerber) for PJ. But Isabel’s in a relationship with the quarterback, Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), and it’s in trying to save Isabel from an increasingly heated argument that they fall afoul of him. In a typical example of the hall-of-mirrors style tone of the action, Jeff falls to the ground writhing in pain after they tap him with their front bumper while attempting to escape the football carpark. It’s on.
Faced with the prospect of expulsion for injuring the star quarterback, PJ and Josie quickly fumble out an explanation about their school self-defence club. Needing a sponsor for the club, they enlist teacher Mr. G (former American football star Marshawn Lynch) and soon the activity is off and running. Their friend Hazel (Ruby Cruz) is a charter member, and following her are a handful of other girls PJ and Josie would like the chance to get to know better. But their beef with the football team escalates as the big game against a rival town approaches, in which their rivals always kill one of the Rockbridge Falls football players. This year they have their sights set on Jeff.
If the lesbian fight club weren’t enough, Bottoms really demonstrates its cracked world view with this notion of actual fatalities on the football field. It’s an instant announcement of Seligman’s range as an artist. Shiva Baby was quite realistic in presenting the baggage of a university aged Jewish girl (also played by Sennott) who encounters all sorts of reminders of her past and present mistakes at the shiva for a family friend. Except for the presence of Sennott, there’s little indication that Bottoms is made by the same person – and yet both films are captivating comedies in their different ways. Bottoms fits right into the world of Heathers, with outsized responses to exaggerated versions of teen stereotypes, updated to a 2023 lens.
The two leads are key to establishing this tone. Both Sennott and Edibiri are dream interpreters of Seligman’s dialogue, perhaps in part because Sennott co-wrote it. Sennott is given to going big, delivering outrageously frank one-liners and blowing up the social contract for interactions among peers. Edibiri is a more interior performer, but perhaps funnier in that she gets going with anxious verbal diarrhoea that spins out into comedy gold. Their performances are engaging because both characters have obstacles to liking them unproblematically, but both easily win us over. Just because this movie is something of a trailblazer in its subject matter doesn’t mean Seligman wants to saddle these characters with any particular representation requirements.
Lynch may not truly be worthy of his own paragraph in this review, but when professional athletes prove themselves adept at comedy, it deserves a special mention. First in the Will Arnett improv detective series Murderville and now here, Lynch is paving a road to his future in comedy. His teacher is open to the inherent feminism of his role as an advisor to this group, but he’s also struggling with his wife leaving him, and this is going to rear its head in some rather anti-feminist fashions that Lynch makes work without reducing the character. It’s another example of Seligman’s attempt to put real characters on screen, not just a collection of aspirational traits.
The fact that we can call these “real characters” – an accurate description within this film’s world – is another Seligman victory. They aren’t “real” in the sense that the things they do or say would happen in any recognisable version of reality. They’re “real” in that they are purposefully thought out and their actions represent a conscious exaggeration of true behaviour upon a genuine personality vector. Just because Bottoms says what it says wildly doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something to say.
Then again, one can also interpret it as gleefully free from meaning and just a fun time at the movies. If Seligman continues to have it both ways, hers will be a career that could take us to all sorts of great places.
Bottoms is currently playing in cinemas.