The gonzo fight club comedy ‘Bottoms’ is deeply, gloriously queer

REVIEW: The film places young queer female sexuality at the forefront and bristles with an anarchic, subversive energy 

How do you get someone to like you? It’s a question that’s been asked seemingly since Adam lusted after Steve—and answers differ vastly. You could buy them flowers, or chocolate or compliment them. You could pull off an elaborate proposal tailor-made to woo their hearts (and go viral on TikTok). You could even go in a more sinister direction, insulting them with backhanded compliments to get their attention—as the old adage goes, “he’s mean because he likes you!” (not that I’m recommending this strategy). Or perhaps you could simply just tell the person you have feelings for them, and hope that they are reciprocated.

It’s a particularly hot-button question in teen movies, where often protagonists are dealing with an overwhelming new emotion, as characters discover romantic feelings for the first time. In a time where these feelings feel particularly heavy, teen flicks are perfect for exploring burgeoning romance. Consider some of teen cinema’s most famous moments: John Cusack holding a boom box above his head in Say Anything, or Julia Stiles reading her poem aloud in 10 Things I Hate About You. These declarations of love are the very foundation on which these, and so many other teen films, are built. 

It’s also the question at the heart of Bottoms, the latest film directed by queer filmmaker Emma Seligman, who broke out with her 2020 feature debut Shiva Baby. But Bottoms has a very different answer to that eternal question: if you want someone to like you, you’ve got to punch them in the face.

Following screenings at SXSW and Frameline Film Festival, Bottoms has become one of the buzziest films of the year, and it’s finally arriving in select cinemas on Aug. 25. The teen sex comedy follows two relentlessly horny lesbian teenagers, PJ (Rachel Sennott, who co-wrote the film) and Josie (comedian Ayo Edebiri), who want nothing more than to lose their virginity before high school ends and university begins. They even know exactly who they want to have sex with: PJ is crazy about Brittany (Kaia Gerber), while Josie can’t stop thinking about Isabel (Havana Rose Liu). There’s just one problem—actually, quite a few problems. While Brittany and Isabel are cheerleaders at the top of the social ladder, PJ and Josie are at the other end of the spectrum: social outcasts. Everyone at school thinks they’re losers—not because they’re lesbians, mind you—and the pair have accepted that designation. It doesn’t help that they aren’t especially talented at anything, or even particularly interesting. 

So what are losers like Josie and PJ to do to get these popular girls’ attention? If, like me, you’re a devoted fan of the teen rom-com genre, you may expect something like a makeover to give them a new image. But this is Bottoms, and you’ve never seen a high school movie quite like this before. To get noticed, improve their social standing and finally—finally!—get laid, they start a fight club.

 

Yes, a fight club. At school. The pair are just crafty enough to sell it as a self-defence club, which attracts the attention of a number of girls in the school, including, miraculously enough, Brittany and Isabel. PJ and Josie’s scheme has them in way over their heads. But by beating the living hell out of each other, the girls in the fight club form a powerful bond—which infuriates the boys in the high school’s football team, led by their quarterback (and Isabel’s boyfriend) Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine—yes, that Royal Blue Nicholas Galitzine). 

Along with Edebiri and Sennott, “Bottoms” stars Zamani Wilde, Summer Joy Campbell, Havana Rose Liul, Kaia Gerber and Virginia Tucker. Credit: Courtesy of ORION Pictures

As you can likely glean from the film’s premise, Bottoms is incredibly bizarre. Everything is deliberately over the top. Teachers say things that would get them fired in any reality: “Could the ugly, untalented gays report to the principal’s office?” goes one announcement over the school’s PA system. When their lockers get vandalized with slurs, Josie, almost excitedly asks, “What, I got Faggot number 1 this time?” There’s even a class on feminism taught by the very male Mr. G (the brilliant former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch), who also supervises their fight club.

But that’s only scratching the surface of just how brazenly bonkers this movie is. There are shocking, funny jokes about everything we’re told not to joke about. Kids are seen in cages, blood flies everywhere, bones are broken and worse. Wonderful music is peppered throughout: the use of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” as Jeff dances the night away, completely unaware of his surroundings, is suitably epic. I could keep listing, but I’d hate to spoil any of the surprises Bottoms has to offer. 

Bottoms exists in a miraculously heightened reality that allows everything to feel plausible—including the fact that everyone in the cast is clearly not a teenager. Normally that kind of thing can feel jarring, but everything in Bottoms feels deliberately jarring. It creates a brilliant effect in which the world feels totally realistic and lived-in. It’s also deeply, gloriously queer, not only in placing queer female sexuality at the forefront (which is incredibly rare, and almost non-existent in the genre), but through an anarchic, subversive energy that feels like queerness is woven into the film’s DNA. Sometimes, the promise of strangeness overwhelms the film, with a middle act that doesn’t feel nearly as thrillingly as subversive as the beginning or end. But the end is so chaotically unpredictable and completely hilarious that it just about makes you forget about any shortcomings the film may have. 

There’s been an uptick in teen movies with queer themes recently, including The Half of It, Alex Strangelove, Anything’s Possible and Crush. That’s exciting progress, but all of those movies have been relegated to the incredibly crowded world of streaming, thus denying them a theatrical release. Having a film this outwardly gonzo queer teen movie in cinemas is cause for celebration—and thankfully, Bottoms offers a gleeful combination of hilarity, honesty and brilliant, committed performances. It’s a classic. The phrase “you’ve never seen anything like it” feels cliché, but, in this case, it’s true. There really isn’t anything like Bottoms out there. I can’t wait to see it again, but even more enticing is to see how Seligman and Sennott continue their go-for-broke partnership in whatever comes next. 

Barry Levitt is a freelance entertainment writer and his work can be seen in The Daily Beast, SlashFilm, Vulture, i-D, and LGBTQNation. He covers animation, queer cinema, and everything in between.

Read More About:
Culture, TV & Film, Youth, Comedy, United States

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