Independent filmmaker Anna Biller (Viva, The Love Witch) recently stirred up a mini-tempest on the website formerly known as Twitter, calling out — sight unseen — the new bawdy comedy Bottoms for its tongue-in-cheek tagline, which reads: “A movie about empowering women (the hot ones). Biller went so far as to compare it to the #MeToo movement, stating: “The problem is with the word ‘empowering.’ Because that’s what the word has come to mean: women are empowered to be sexy. I hope I haven’t contributed somehow to this mess.” That take is unfortunate for a number of reasons, including being a classic case of judging a book by its cover and harboring overtones of “get off my lawn” grumpiness (not to mention, just missing the joke). But mostly it’s because Bottoms, the latest from director Emma Seligman (Shiva Baby), is the sort of female-centric, sex-positive, winking pastiche that feels, in some small part, indebted to Biller’s own hyper-stylized takes on exploitation cinema (as evidenced by her own sheepish acknowledgment). Seligman and her co-collaborators have taken the knowingly disreputable genre of the horny, high school comedy — with its typically male gaze, rote coming-of-age lessons, and lazy plot machinations you can all but set your watch to — and reimagined it as an act of dirtbag feminism. The film calls attention to the more odious tropes, stale gender roles, and engrained power dynamics of high school comedies by emphasizing their inherent absurdity. In the process, it takes the piss out of pep rallies, oblivious authority figures, cross-town rivalries, and the whole social hierarchy of high school where jocks are elevated to gods, revealing the entire construct to be as artificial as Greta Gerwig’s interpretation of Barbieland (and at a fraction of the cost).
The film was co-written by and stars Rachel Sennott (reuniting with her Shiva Baby director) alongside Ayo Edebiri of The Bear as PJ and Josie respectively, two lesbian pariahs entering their senior year of high school who aspire to little more than finally getting laid before heading off to college. The film is quick to point out that PJ and Josie aren’t outcasts because they’re gay, exactly, but rather because they’re also “ugly” and “untalented,” which feels a bit “doth protest too much” in light of the fact that Sennott’s real-life social media activities could be described as “perpetual thirst trap” (also, both actresses are in their mid-to-late 20s, and the film makes almost no effort to obscure this). Josie is mousy and introverted, PJ is brash and assertive; they have their sights set on the pretty popular girls Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber), and they’re not going to let them having boyfriends or that, by all accounts, they’re straight stand in their way. And if the dating scene wasn’t hard enough for a couple awkward lesbians, through a series of outlandish misunderstandings, including PJ and Josie joking about having spent the summer in juvie and Josie gently tapping Isabel’s philandering boyfriend and star football player Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine) with the bumper of her car (leading to the prima donna falling to the ground in exaggerated agony), the two young women quickly pick up the unearned reputation of being violent hooligans roaming the halls of Rock Ridge High.
But sometimes violence is exactly what’s called for. Capitalizing on a series of assaults perpetrated by a rival school, PJ and Josie start an after-school self-defense club exclusively for women, which naturally begins to be referred to as “Fight Club” and leads to some confused David Fincher fans joining. The duo doesn’t know the first thing about self-defense, nor do they really care about building up solidarity amongst the school’s female population (although that sounds better for recruiting purposes); they just want to roll around on the gym mats with all the pretty girls. PJ initially bemoans the fact that the only girls who join are “a bunch of sixes,” but their little club, which amounts to young women decking one another without proper protection or training, begins to generate some buzz. Soon, PJ and Josie are greeted with respectful nods as they strut between classes, their eyes blackened, and lips bloodied. They gain legitimacy after roping in a faculty advisor in their disengaged history teacher Mr. G. (played by former All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch, continuing in the proud tradition of Alex Karras and Bubba Smith as lumbering former football players turned deadpan comedic foils), and eventually Isabel and Brittany show up to the club to trade bumps with our heroines. So what if PJ and Josie are lying about their intentions as well as their personal histories with combat? They still get to wrestle around on the floor with their attractive classmates, every violent takedown practically dripping with sexual tension. With Josie and Isabel beginning to get closer and PJ holding a practically zealot-like sway over the group, where else can this all go other than some light terrorism (which, after all, was the case with the other Fight Club)?
Bottoms‘ plot is purposefully nonsensical; a clothesline on which to hang profane jokes that attack the very nature of propriety and teen comedy clichés. Sennott’s character is practically a response to the foul-mouthed protagonist of dozens of Judd Apatow films, possessing no filter and addressing her sexual desires in a manner every bit as disgustingly as your assorted Seths and Jonahs, riffing openly about wanting to put her fingers inside of Brittany and “getting cooch.” “So who here’s been raped?” PJ blurts out as part of a club ice-breaking exercise, and, sensing uncertainty from the group, amends her question with “gray area stuff counts.” Yes, it’s shocking in its insensitivity, but also offers a wicked commentary on the way people weaponize shared trauma to selfish ends (it should be noted that everyone in the circle eventually admits they’ve been assaulted multiple times, with one young woman sharing a Kafkaesque tale of being unable to navigate the bureaucracy of keeping her stalker at bay and that she’s basically SOL until he gets around to physically attacking her). The film’s bubbly tone — with an assist coming courtesy of an electro-pop score co-written by Charli XCX and needle drops by Avril Lavigne and Bonnie Tyler — and tendency to place the subtext on the surface do little to cushion some rather dark observations about paternalism, misogyny, and lecherous male behavior. In trying to convince Mr. G that as a faculty adviser his attendance at “Fight Club” won’t be necessary, Josie reminds him that the best way to be an “ally” is to say you’ll support someone and then fail to deliver on that promise in any way (later, after the girls’ ulterior motives have been called out in front of the entire school, Mr. G makes a big show of crossing out the word “feminism” on his chalkboard, replacing it with “why no woman has ever been President and never should be…” Ouch).
Bottoms is rather smart about its silliness, knowing both when to call attention to a fourth-wall-busting gag — PJ reacts with confusion at class being dismissed mere minutes after it began, essentially because the scene has ended — as well as when to leave it unaddressed — the football team is posed in the cafeteria like they’re at the Last Supper, with a mural inspired by The Creation of Adam on the wall behind them. The film’s big action climax, which requires our characters to win back the trust of the school and stop a literal assassination attempt, is expansive enough to encompass an ill-conceived ploy to use girl-on-girl action as a distraction (of whom exactly? unclear!), as well as a full-on battle royale where half a dozen football players are punched and/or impaled to death. Seligman’s film has a knack for distilling bromides and moldy plot devices down to their essence, stripping away the banality to arrive at something uncomfortable and true and, more often than not, uproarious. It’s an impish homage to perhaps the most empty–calorie of genres, laying bare the lowest common denominator nature of these kinds of films while still allowing the girls to have fun doing it. If Biller ever gets around to watching this, I bet she’ll dig it.
DIRECTOR: Emma Seligman CAST: Rachel Sennott, Ayo Edebiri, Havana Rose Liu, Kaia Gerber; DISTIRBUTOR: MGM; IN THEATERS: August 25; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 28 min.