‘Bottoms’ Goes Back to High School With Bloody Knuckles, Queer Desire and Vicious Glee

Emma Seligman’s “Bottoms” is one of those special anarchic gems that gets it when it comes to looking back at the high school experience. The best movies about adolescence are not the sweet-flavored teen dramas where every crush is fulfilled, the adults are saints in hiding and best friends work like oracles. No, the truly great ones know few of us would want to go back and harbored fantasies best left in private journal entries. They are also incredibly funny because so much of that period in time was beyond absurd. Seligman’s movie is a throwback and update of violently hilarious, horny teen movies, which nonetheless never forgets to throw in genuine affection. It remembers to have real feelings while bruising some knuckles.

Yes, Gen Z is surely more progressive than its predecessors, but for all time to be a teen means to battle raging hormones. Best friends PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) are queer and virgins at Rockbridge Falls High. They are tired of the situation and feel cursed with being “ugly, untalented gays.” The problem isn’t their sexual identity, but that even in these times, it’s all about looks and popularity. The “hot” people, of any orientation, rule supreme. Their crushes seem cruelly unattainable and happen to be cheerleaders. PJ likes Brittany (Kaia Gerber), one of those tall, slim students who look eternally bored and ready for a magazine cover. Josie is into Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), the sweet-faced girlfriend of quarterback Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), leader of the local pack of alpha jocks. When a quirky incident leads to rumors that PJ and Josie were in juvie, and panic spreads over violent intentions from big rival Huntington High, PJ devises a scheme to form a “fight club” to teach girls self-defense. The real aim is to seduce their cheerleader crushes.

Seligman first grabbed attention in 2020 with her directorial debut, the darkly enjoyable indie “Shiva Baby.” Also starring Sennott, it followed a bisexual Jewish college student’s claustrophobic day at a shiva where she’s trapped with her parents and sugar daddy. Shot with a low budget and great energy, it had that special touch of a film where we sense the director has met each character at some point in real life. Now with more resources, Seligman delivers another sharp work with more color, satire, and the sensation of always feeling alive. Her screenplay, co-written with Sennott, obviously draws influence from guilty pleasures like “Jawbreaker” and “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” late ‘90s mischiefs that were wildly entertaining while jabbing at society at large. There’s also some of the rebellious sweetness of “But I’m a Cheerleader.” When and where the movie is set is unclear. It’s like an amalgam of eras, with flip phones and CD players making appearances. Seligman isn’t imitating her predecessors and “Bottoms” feels entirely like the voice of a unique filmmaker.

The first devilish charm in the story is how it acknowledges that while being queer may not get you automatically ostracized at a modern suburban high school, the hierarchy remains unchanged when it comes to looks. In a great opening scene PJ and Josie watch as attractive queer students strut by, basking in being part of the cool crowd. Sennott and Ayo Edebiri, who you might recognize from FX’s “The Bear,” are the perfect slacker pair. They’re not playing overachievers or extreme outsiders, just quirky teens wondering why it’s so hard to finally try sex. The surrounding characters are a wonderful collection of heightened versions of our classroom memories. Mr. G (Marshawn Lynch) would rather scribble a vague historical assignment on the chalkboard before disappearing into a magazine, sometimes inserting his divorce problems into conversation. He’s the instant choice to be approached by PJ and Josie to be the fight club’s required advisor. As would definitely happen, the first girls who appear for the club’s initiating meeting are not the desired cheerleaders, but misfits like Sylvie (Summer Joy Campbell), who would like to kill her stepfather. Hazel (Ruby Cruz) inconveniently knows how to make bombs. Another participant has a stalker the cops never do anything about.

After the first push and bloody smile at the fight club the movie goes full throttle into unabashed comedy, satirical violence and the kind of raunchy lines we didn’t realize we missed in teen movies. Like “Heathers,” that classic that must of course be mentioned, the battle lines are clearly drawn. Jeff is sleeping with someone’s mother while his wing man on the team, Tim (Miles Fowler) threatens PJ and Josie to drop their little club. Football games and school rivalries provoke mindless animalistic behavior from the dumb masses. The camera by Maria Rusche is constantly on the move like the hormones and anxieties at play. She uses color to exaggerate everything just right, while keeping it subdued like a meaner cousin of “Riverdale.” Leo Birenberg and Charli XCX’s music is an electronic hybrid that could go with an action movie or teenager’s nightmare. Seligman also finds just the right absurdist use for Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” We are dared to laugh and have fun even when there’s the risk of the plot climaxing with a bloodbath. 

In these times of more sensitivity and kinder teen movies, a rabble rouser like “Bottoms” is cathartic. Teenagers can still be mean, cruel and horny all at the same time. Seligman is such a good storyteller she goes beyond some of her influences. There’s the spirit of movies such as “Wet Hot American Summer,” but with a deeper emotional approach as well. It’s not as if PJ won’t have to face the consequences of her bolder antics. Josie too seems to find a genuine physical and emotional connection with someone, before having to realize it’s not so easy to get there through deception. The popular girls are also not complete airheads, though the jocks don’t get off so easily. “Bottoms” never gets shy or chickens out. Its bloody noses will be a tonic for millennials and others still haunted by their classroom battle scars. Some Gen Z audience members won’t know what hit them. 

Bottoms” releases Aug. 25 in select theaters and expands Sept. 1 in theaters nationwide.