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'Bottoms' is an absurdist high school sex comedy that rages and soars

Ayo Edebiri as Josie and Rachel Sennott as PJ in <em>Bottoms.</em>
Patti Perret
/
Orion Releasing LLC
Ayo Edebiri as Josie and Rachel Sennott as PJ in Bottoms.

For some time now, there's been fervid debate around the coital experiences of fictional characters in Hollywood. "Make movies horny again!" cry some, observing an overall decline in sexual chemistry at the movies and on TV. "Sex should only exist on screen if it makes narrative sense!" others bemoan on the rare occasion sex/nudity do appear.

Circumstantial evidence – in this case, random people's social media bios – suggests a strong generational divide on the subject. The "gimme more" crowd seem to be millennials and older, raised on an MTV-erotic thriller-high school sex comedy diet of the '80s and '90s. Those being the most prudish about it tend to be Gen Zers, whose understandings of sex are likely warped by such catastrophic cultural events like the #MeToo movement and the pandemic.

Enter Bottoms, a smart and extremely weird high school sex comedy that manages to be one of the horniest movies in recent memory while also bluntly remarking upon feminist theory – bell hooks gets a namecheck – through a specifically queer lens. Perhaps not so coincidentally, it was created by two women who live just on the bubble of the Gen Z-younger millennial cutoff, director Emma Seligman and her co-writer Rachel Sennott. (The pair previously collaborated on the great and stressful dramedy Shiva Baby.)

Like many fictional teens who have preceded them, best friends PJ (Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) are on a mission to finally get laid before heading to college. The problem is, they're the "ugly, untalented gays" of Rockbridge Falls High. (To be clear, their unpopularity has nothing to do with their sexual orientation, and everything to do with the "ugly, untalented" part. Sennott and Edebiri play the awkward slacker parts quite well, and have a great rapport.) They harbor secret crushes on cheerleaders; PJ is into Brittany (Kaia Gerber), who seems too cool for everything, and Josie likes Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), who is, naturally, dating the football star – and notorious philanderer – Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine).

A series of silly misunderstandings and obfuscations lead to a rumor that PJ and Josie have spent time in juvie, which conveniently coincides with a female student's allegations of assault by someone from their bigtime football rival, Huntington High. Capitalizing on their newly forged tough girl reputations, the friends decide to start a fight club in order to get closer to Brittany and Isabel. They manage to convince their well-meaning but kind of dense teacher Mr. G (Marshawn Lynch, utterly delightful) to be their club's advisor under the guise of it being a self-defense class meant to empower young women.

Of course, PJ and Josie's plan eventually blows up in their faces, spectacularly. But not before the club gets going, and its members form a bond in between throwing punches.

With this premise, Sennott and Seligman strike both a sweet and an abrasive tone that's tricky to pull off, though they do so quite handily. Bottoms leans hard into the absurdities of our hyperviolent and misogynistic culture and pokes fun at them; in one provocative scene, the girls go around sharing their personal experiences with harassment, abuse, and sexual assault, and while it's deeply depressing, it also makes for one of the movie's wittiest comedic moments. The girls' rage is palpable, and accepted as a given in this cruel, harsh world – they hardly bat an eye when quirky and very enthusiastic Sylvie (Summer Joy Campbell) exclaims she looks forward to being able to kill her stepfather.

Bottoms is also just straight-up strange. Exactly where in the U.S.A. is this seemingly small suburban town supposed to be located, and in what era? Unless I missed some subtle hints, Seligman and Sennott have left these answers deliberately opaque: The local diner has a retro Happy Days vibe, the kids hang out at the fair, and football means everything to almost everyone, which could describe any number of places across the country.

There also doesn't seem to be a smartphone in sight or any trace of social media, though there are flip phones, one kid rocks out to his discman(!), and another uses a phone book(!!!). (Gen Zers are apparently into '90s nostalgia right now, but that last detail is particularly funny.)

The disorienting ambiguity of time and space is a feature, not a bug – it complements the rest of the film's off-kilter storytelling, which climaxes with a hilariously brutal and preposterous fight sequence. Mileage may vary, especially in these trying times of sex-in-the-media discourse, but there's something refreshing about a movie that's willing to tap into the dark sides of youth and horniness without coming off as shame-y or puritanical. In the realm of black comedies unabashedly embracing teen nastiness, Heathers walked so Jawbreaker could run, Mean Girls could fly, and so Bottoms can now proudly land in outer space.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.