Bottoms (United States, 2023)

September 09, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bottoms Poster

Bottoms exists somewhere in between a satire and an homage to John Hughes-style teen rom-coms, reimagined for today’s LGBQT+ friendly audiences. When it works, which is quite often, it does so for the same reason that Hughes’ best-known offerings worked: the characters are relatable, the humor generates laughter without becoming moronic, and the feel-good vibe is never far from the surface. And, as much as Emma Seligman’s sophomore effort (she previously made 2020’s Shiva Baby) satirizes teen rom-com tropes with its self-aware approach, it still has room to flesh out the characters (at least some of them) and there’s an underlying serious approach to the theme of female self-empowerment.

PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) are seniors at Rockbridge Falls High School. They have been best friends for years and both identify as lesbians. They are also virgins. Josie’s crush is cheerleader Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) – an unfortunate choice because she’s dating the school’s star quarterback, Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), and therefore seems off-limits. The more outgoing PJ is interested in Isabel’s best friend, the statuesque Brittany (Kaia Gerber), whose sexuality is ambiguous. She doesn’t have a boyfriend and appears attached at the hip to Isabel.

Along with their friend Hazel (Ruby Cruz), Josie and PJ concoct an absurd scheme that might give them a chance to have sex with Isabel and Brittany: start a feminist “fight club.” The stated goal (at least the one presented to the school to obtain the necessary permissions) is to teach women to protect themselves against predators. A lot of punching and bleeding comes with enrollment. The faculty adviser, a skeptical teacher referred to only as Mr. G. (Marshawn Lynch), watches how things develop and decides not to intervene. The girls in the club gradually begin to bond and, much to Josie’s surprise, she and Isabel develop a connection.

The story is patently silly from the beginning and becomes weaker as it approaches its pineapple juice-soaked conclusion. But, as is true for most comedies, the narrative is just the skeleton. The meat and flesh come from the characters, their interactions, and the words they speak. These things are sufficiently flavorful to camouflage the brittleness of the underlying structure. Bottoms works because we come to care about PJ and Josie, who escape low caricature orbit. Seligman and her co-screenwriter/star Rachel Sennott have a good sense of what is effective within this framework. They know how to get laughs by pushing the envelope but not puncturing it.

Bottoms boasts a diverse cast and the diversity is singularly effective because it doesn’t feel the need to call attention to itself. The characters aren’t defined by their ethnicity but by their personalities. The two leads – Sennott and Ayo Edebiri – are quite good. Beyond them, there’s a variability to the quality of the performances. The most interesting casting choice is the selection of Marshawn Lynch as Mr. G. Although it’s tempting to argue that the former football star gives a Razzie-worthy turn, I was reminded of Andre the Giant’s role in The Princess Bride. By any traditional metric, it’s bad acting, but it works in the context of what the filmmakers want.

The distribution pattern used by Orion/MGM indicates faith that the movie will generate attendance via word-of-mouth. Although teen rom-coms are traditionally watched primarily by a 12-to-20 audience, Bottoms has a smart enough script that its appeal may extend to older viewers (although the level of raunchiness and sexually explicit dialogue might cut out pre-high school kids). There’s also a nostalgia element in play – those with a long history of watching teen rom-coms may notice more layers than those with less experience with the genre. Bottoms achieves what it sets out to do and, in the process, provides a multiplex-friendly indie movie with breakout potential.

Bottoms (United States, 2023)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2023-08-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence)
Genre: Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1