Bottoms’ satire could stand to dig a little deeper
A movie about two students starting a fight club to hook up with hot girls might sound like it dates back to an earlier time: the 1980s circa Revenge of the Nerds, say, or the early 2000s, when raunchy R-rated high school sex comedies like EuroTrip and American Pie (and assorted sequels) were all the rage. But 2023’s Bottoms turns those two students from nerdy boys into lesbians and cranks up the self-awareness a few levels.
Directed by Emma Seligman (writer-director of Shiva Baby), and co-scripted by Seligman and Shiva Baby star Rachel Sennott, Bottoms pointedly mocks the often chauvinistic tone of these racy comedies. Like Cocaine Bear (also produced by Elizabeth Banks), it excels when it goes full throttle. But at times, Bottoms also plays right into the same problematic dynamics it’s making fun of, and it occasionally veers into weird tonal shifts. For the most part, though, Bottoms strikes a balance: It’s a playful satire, and it’s also exactly the sort of film it’s making fun of.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight spoilers for Bottoms.]
Bottoms follows two high school seniors, PJ (Sennott) and Josie (The Bear star Ayo Edebiri), who, after a series of increasingly hilarious miscommunications, accidentally start a self-defense fight club under the guise of empowering their female classmates. They realize this club gives them the perfect opportunity to get closer to their crushes, two hot, popular cheerleaders (played by Havana Rose Liu and Kaia Gerber), so they continue the facade, digging a deeper and deeper hole with their convoluted lies.
Twenty years ago, this plot would be played completely straight (pun very intended), with two dweeby teenage boys as the protagonists. Handing off those roles to Sennott and Edebiri already puts a fun twist on the genre. They have an intense, frenzied chemistry that makes their lifelong friendship feel believable. The supporting cast is stellar, particularly Marshawn Lynch as a helpful albeit self-absorbed and misguided teacher at PJ and Josie’s school. Every character fits a stock trope — the dumb jock, the hot girls, the loser friends — and they’re all dialed up to the max, really selling the movie’s parody element.
Bottoms is strongest when it fully indulges that satire. Part of the high school’s hype strategy for the big football game involves plastering the halls with heavily sexualized shirtless posters of the star quarterback. A classroom scene inexplicably involves one of the students standing in a cage. After a particularly climatic moment, a sad montage plays out, set to none other than Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” a needle drop so ridiculously 2000s that it transcends time and space.
With these over-the-top moments, it’s easier to remember that this movie is making fun of sleazy male-gaze-y movies. But occasionally, Bottoms lifts scenes and tones directly from those older movies without actually recontextualizing them, and it becomes a jarring reminder of why previous raunchy teen sex comedies aged like milk. For instance, the fundraiser scene where the hot cheerleaders sell their used underwear and walk around in bikinis — a fundraiser entirely attended by leering older men — doesn’t nail the satire, and just feels creepy.
There are enough scenes like this to undermine the movie’s otherwise on-point parodying, and that uncomfortable edge could be sanded off without sacrificing the rest of the movie’s tone. Thankfully, by the final act, the ridiculous plot elements are so fully over-the-top that it’s much easier to accept any element in the movie that might otherwise feel questionable. The two main characters are total dirtbags — especially PJ, who is just completely terrible to Hazel (Willow’s Ruby Cruz), a fellow student who stands by her side in spite of various betrayals. But considering the type of movie characters they’re clearly emulating, that’s the point.
And it’s a bit satisfying to see character archetypes that would normally be straight dudes now reimagined as queer women. It isn’t exactly empowering to see women portrayed as lusty, manipulative, lying creeps, but the gender flip does add a rich layer to the parody. More importantly for a comedy, it adds more specific jokes that reach a different sort of audience than these movies used to. The raunchy sex comedy genre pokes its head back up every 20 years or so, after all. It’s only fitting that this time around, it’s finally capturing a wider range of experience.
Bottoms had a limited theatrical release on Aug. 25, and expands to wide release on Sept. 1.