SXSW 2023: ‘Bottoms’ Review
The following is part of our coverage of SXSW 2023. For more, click here.
Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott’s first feature-length collaboration, Shiva Baby, was supposed to premiere at 2020’s South by Southwest festival. For reasons that are apparent to anyone alive this decade, that screening didn’t happen. Not that it deterred that film’s success one bit. The tight-wound anxiety comedy gained an organic online following, leading to anticipation for writer-director Seligman and co-writer/star Sennott’s follow-up. Now that I have seen the film, expecting Bottoms to be anything like Shiva Baby is a losing game. Bottoms is a wacky and queer farce, with a pitch-black sense of humor that makes it one of the funniest outings in years.
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PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) are losers, the bottom of the totem pole at their jock-heavy high school. They spend their days pining for cheerleaders Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber), doing nothing about it until they come up with an idea. The two form a fight club with the intention of getting the hottest girls in school to join so they can hook up with them. Under the guise of “female empowerment”, they put together the club with fellow outcast Hazel (Ruby Cruz) and get the sponsorship of aloof teacher Mr. G (Marshawn Lynch). The club fails at first until a little white lie about the girls going to a juvenile detention center gets students to join. There, they begin to find genuine community and get closer than ever to sealing the deal with their crushes.
Bottoms‘s plot is typical high school coming-of-age stuff, at least in structure. It follows your typical John Hughes-esque plot: outcasts find their own community built on a lie, everything comes apart, reconciliation, feel-good resolution. But in this instance, execution is everything. Seligman and Sennott set their movie in an exaggerated world with a satirical bite. The men run the school, the jocks throwing their weight around and getting away with just about everything. Foul-mouthed aggression is pervasive while the school is so absurdly decrepit that their entire reading class is canceled. It captures the bleak oppression of high school and displays a newfound gift by Seligman for style.
What makes Bottoms extra unique is its centering on lesbian characters. This may be a teen movie, but you rarely get to see sapphic characters who are genuinely layered. Bottoms presents its lovable losers as three-dimensional people. And their joy and unleashing of righteous fury is always on display. This is a cast you really root for, and the women of Bottoms – queer or not – get the agency and characteristics they deserve. This means that whenever their fight club becomes something more, the audience is ready to cheer them on. The flip side is that the men of the movie are total doofuses, which isn’t really an issue given that Seligman and Sennott’s whip-smart script takes a satirical peek at the unearned overconfidence common in a vast majority of men.
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Beyond that, Bottoms is really god-damn funny! Sennott and Edebiri are born to be stars, the former’s aggression and the latter’s mousy shyness playing very well off each other. Sennott in particular has impeccable line reads, such as whenever a character floats the idea of bombing the jocks’ car and PJ responds sarcastically “Yeah Hazel, let’s just… do terrorism”. But it’s really the barbed jabs at one another – frequently mean as hell – that get the biggest laughs. The dialogue here feels, well, iconic.
Again, it’s that wild energy that makes Bottoms so irresistible. The movie is in competition with itself to be as gutbustingly ridiculous as possible, and the audience always wins. Whether it be extras acting like Looney Tunes in the background, or just characters being themselves. A finale that breaks any semblance of “realism” seals the deal. Bottoms is the kind of flick that beats you over the head with its satirical wit, performances, and perfect sense of humor. Once you’ve taken a few punches, you’ll get up and come back for more. – James Preston Poole
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