Every now and then, a comedy rolls around that is delightfully unafraid of utter ridiculousness—of pushing buttons and boundaries until it’s blue in the face. Directed by Emma Seligman (Shiva Baby) in her sophomore feature, Bottoms is such a comedy. The film follows P.J. (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri), two wildly unpopular gay high schoolers who found a female fight club to impress their cheerleader crushes: Brittany (Kaia Gerber) and Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), respectively.
This is a premise that naturally lends itself to a healthy dosage of humor, but Seligman doesn’t dare rely too heavily on her high-concept conceit. With the help of Sennott, who co-wrote the script, Seligman squeezes every ounce of humor out of each of the film’s thoughtfully-crafted scenarios—for better or worse. More often than not, this yields either shockingly bloody and hilarious visual gags, such as an impeccably-timed explosion or punch to the face, or masterfully-delivered punchlines about I-can’t-believe-she-went-there topics like bombs or abortions. The downside of committing so staunchly to keeping Bottoms funny for every second of its 90-minute runtime, however, is that it sometimes feels a little forced. Had Seligman not insisted on turning all of the football players into hyper-masculine caricatures, for example, or hyperbolized the high school’s team spirit, she might have given the film’s more weighty themes—gender, sexuality, friendship—some much-needed room to breathe.
Seligman and Sennott’s grips on such themes are effortless. In the rare moments that Bottoms takes a turn into sincerity, the dialogue is subtle yet acutely affecting, and indicates that its writers have a heartfelt understanding of what their characters are going through. If they had just sacrificed a couple of visual gags and attached their film a little more tightly to reality, Bottoms would be both poignant and laugh-out-loud funny.
In her defense, it does make sense why Seligman wasn’t interested in giving up any of the film’s punchlines. She did, after all, hit the jackpot with one of the funniest ensemble casts of the past decade. Sennott shines as P.J., a character that is witty, goofy and helplessly outgoing, and gives the actor license to flex her comedic chops with a freedom she hasn’t previously been fully afforded in a feature film. Ebediri steals the show in several scenes, nailing punchline after punchline after punchline like she could do it in her sleep. The chemistry between the two is exquisite, which shouldn’t come as a surprise; the two previously spearheaded the uproarious Comedy Central web series Ayo and Rachel Are Single. Their chemistry mostly makes up for the lack thereof between the pair and their respective love interests.
That said, the supporting cast of Bottoms is just as capable as its leads. Up-and-coming star Liu plays Isabel with a wild, fearless dosage of self-deprecation which promises that this is just the beginning of her career in comedy. Ruby Cruz is also hilarious as P.J. and Josie’s close confidante, carrying one of the film’s funniest jokes (which may or may not involve her unhealthy obsession with bombs) on her shoulders with ease. But, believe it or not, the best supporting performance in Bottoms comes from Marshawn Lynch, who plays P.J. and Josie’s teacher, a recent divorcee who has some… unique… thoughts on feminism. His delivery is sharp and effortless throughout; if I hadn’t known better, I’d assume he’s been starring in comedies his whole life.
When Seligman’s short film Shiva Baby premiered at South by Southwest back in 2018, audiences widely recognized the budding director as someone with a unique talent for whipping up a tight, sharp comedy in a small space. Now that her budget and scope are bigger, she has once again proven that she has an outstanding command over the genre. While Bottoms would benefit from the knowledge that a successful comedy is only enhanced when it has a little room to breathe, it’s an exciting revelation that Seligman is more than proficient in multiple corners of the genre. All there’s left to do is wait and see the exciting places she goes next.
Director: Emma Seligman
Writers: Emma Seligman, Rachel Sennott
Stars: Rachel Sennott, Ayo Edebiri, Marshawn Lynch, Havana Rose Liu, Kaia Gerber, Nicholas Galitzine, Ruby Cruz, Dagmara Domińczyk
Release Date: March 11, 2023 (SXSW)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.