In “Bottoms,” a high-school comedy that is brazenly gonzo, scaldingly and at times even dementedly over-the-top, and actually about something, PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) have been best friends since the first grade, but in their senior year at Rock Ridge High they’re at the end of their tether. They’re losers, they’re lonely, they’re lesbians — and in their eyes, that puts them beneath the bottom of the food chain. So they do what anyone in their position might do. They decide to start a fight club!
It’s modeled (sort of) on the one in “Fight Club,” though the movie isn’t particularly interested in that film, where the characters staged bare-knuckle brawls out of a kind of self-serious macho romantic doomsday nihilism. In “Bottoms,” PJ and Josie, in the time-honored tradition of teen-movie protagonists out to lose their virginity, are just looking for a way to sleep with the cheerleaders they have crushes on. They build the club around a scurrilous and rather ridiculous lie: that they’ve both spent time in “juvie.” Sitting around in the gym, with a handful of the “normal” girls they’ve roped into joining the club, all of them share stories about the men they’ve had to fend off (stalkers, pervy stepfathers, you name it). And when they get to the fight-club part, letting out their aggression, the jabs are shockingly violent. We laugh, but we also think: What’s going on here?
What’s going on is that the movie is getting punch-drunk. The jokes don’t just sting, they hurt. “Bottoms” is unlike any high-school comedy you’ve ever seen. It’s a satire of victimization, a satire of violence, and a satire of itself. It walks a tightrope between sensitivity and insanity (with a knowing bit of inanity), and it’s full of moments that are defiantly what we once used to call incorrect.
PJ and Josie approach their lockers, which have been spray-painted with numbered defamatory epithets, and Josie says, “What, I got Faggot #1 this time?” There are jokes about bulimia, rape, suicide and blowing up the school. Some of the antagonists are the Vikings, the high-school football team, who are never not wearing their uniforms and who function as a deranged sendup of the patriarchy — think John Hughes villains played by the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. When Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), the scurviest of them as well as the boyfriend of Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), who Josie has a thing for, gets caught sleeping with the mother of Hazel (Ruby Cruz), a fight-club member, the girls visit his home for some payback. As “Total Eclipse of the Heart” unfolds on the soundtrack (Jeff is listening to it on his headphones, convinced, like the bully he is, that he’s a sensitive dude), Hazel attaches a bomb to his car, and it blows up real good.
“Bottoms,” at moments, evokes the barb-wire camp of “But I’m a Cheerleader” crossed with the scandalous misanthropy of “Heathers.” Yet unlike those movies, this one has a teasing humanity that sneaks up on you. The fight club, the faking of identity, the vengeance — PJ and Josie have launched all this because their lives don’t feel real to them. They need to pummel their way into being seen. This is the second feature directed by Emma Seligman, whose first film, “Shiva Baby” (2021), was a critical darling, though I found it at once overdone and unconvincing. “Bottoms” is a more confident and audacious piece of work, in part because Seligman has left realism behind. She has made a comedy of vicious gamesmanship, at once confessional and surreal. It feels like a quintessential SXSW movie, and in its premiere last night went over big.
In the outside world, it may prove to be a more challenging breed of wild-dog conversation piece. Yet Seligman, who wrote the scabrous screenplay with her lead actor, Rachel Sennott (the star of “Shiva Baby” as well as a costar of “Bodies Bodies Bodies”), is onto something: the way that those who have been forced to see themselves as outsiders project their alienation onto everything around them.
Seligman is projecting too. She blows up the experience of high school like a toxic balloon. The scenes with the students and their teacher, Mr. G., who is caught between his empathy and his rage against feminism, are stunningly funny; the former NFL star Marshawn Lynch plays him with a voluble conviction that keeps on giving. And PJ and Josie aren’t just buddies with different flavors. They represent a radically different approach to fighting prejudice — PJ the ringleader, flip and pitiless, content to use her wit as a form of destruction, and Josie the more insecure and open. Her wooing of Isabel starts with tearing down Isabel’s wall of conventionality, and Ayo Edebiri makes us feel every tremor of Josie’s desire to connect.
PJ, by contrast, has set her sights on Brittany (Kaia Gerber), who has an eating disorder as well as a conviction that she’s straight. We think she is too, though the movie is about how the rigidity of high-school society cuts off experimentation. The fight club is supposed to be a cult of self-defense, but the real thing it accomplishes is to beat the students’ orthodoxies into submission.
“Bottoms” is the rare high-school comedy that could be called a ride. The film’s caustic relentlessness, which takes more than a bit of getting used to (this is not your older sister’s earnest coming-out fable), might have been too much if the film weren’t also a journey. It flips the bird not merely at men but at feminism. “Who is bell hooks, and why should we care?” says one character. Yet there’s a freakish joy at work in how Seligman tears down the very universe of high-school comedy only to build it back up into a comic book of aggression that does nothing less than remake the social order. The big game at the end is a triumphant sequence, as stylized as a musical. “Bottoms” won’t be for everyone, but it’s a movie of outrageously forward-looking talent.