‘Bottoms’ Review: Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri Burst With Female Rage in Punchy High School Comedy

Emma Seligman’s zippy yet broad ‘Shiva Baby’ follow-up renews the spirit of raunchy teen humor

"Bottoms" (Credit: MGM)

If high school is perpetual pain then no one seems to be feeling the agony more acutely than P.J. (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri of “The Bear”), the underdog protagonists of Emma Seligman’s madcap, raunchy teen comedy, “Bottoms.”

Indeed, these best-friends-for-life never seemed to have found a trusted clique of their own. And they can’t really blame their unpopularity on their sexual orientation as lesbians (and thus, their school’s supposed homophobia), either. Not when the well-liked and popular gay kids get high-fived in the hallways by their straight classmates for putting on stupendous musical theater shows. In their own words, P.J and Josie are ostracized and bullied not because they are gay, but because they are “gay, untalented and ugly.”

Not the right combo of qualities that will get them laid with the members of the cheerleading squad, particularly their respective crushes Brittany (Kaia Gerber) and Isabel (Havana Rose Liu). So what’s a pair of exceedingly horny girls to do, if not pull off the most elaborate scheme of their lives in order to finally lose their virginity before college?

The premise that unfolds around a group of clueless teens with insatiable appetites for sex sure sounds a lot like “American Pie” and “Superbad.” Though Seligman’s achievement here isn’t just simplistically gender-swapping these recognizable teen comedies and updating their tired straight-male tropes in her sophomore feature. (For the record, that particular endeavor to let young girls be horny isn’t anything new and has been attempted semi-successfully before by “Booksmart,” among others.)

Her real accomplishment is managing to renew the broad brushstrokes of the teen comedy by inheriting something old from some of the bests of the genre like “Heathers,” “Mean Girls” and “Bring it On,” and reviving their spirit with something new, on her own terms.

For anyone who’s seen Seligman’s fierce debut “Shiva Baby” (also starring Sennott) and reveled in that particular cringe-comedy of escalating tension and hysterical claustrophobia, the effortless rhythm of “Bottoms” won’t come as a surprise. What might come as a slightly disappointing surprise is how broad Seligman’s (and her co-writer Sennott’s) writing sometimes feels when compared to the tight and taut “Shiva Baby” and its parade of well-realized characters.

Nevertheless, what “Bottoms” lacks in specificity, it makes up for with an abundantly fresh sense of wackiness. That eager zaniness erupts often and sprouts across unexpected avenues when P.J. and Josie decide to start a fight club for girls to supposedly empower their fellow females and teach them the basics of self-defense. Several unsuspecting girls (including Brittany and Isabel) sign up, simply because they buy the lie that P.J. and Josie are actually a pair of unsung badasses who survived their summer in juvenile detention and maybe even killed someone there.

The fight sessions and everything that follows are crazier, bloodier and punchier than anything you might be expecting. And it’s continually fun to go along with Seligman’s wild ride, even when the film’s motormouth brand of humor leaves a lot to be desired. Relatedly, it feels rather unfortunate when a pair of male characters—the school’s crybaby jock Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine of “Red, White and Royal Blue”) and a scene-stealing Marshawn Lynch as a beloved teacher with a questionable sense of appropriateness—run away with the film’s most memorable moments of comedy.

But despite these lapses and a crowded finale, Seligman still sticks the landing, crafting a womanly comedy that is equal parts self-aware and satirical. “Bottoms” celebrates female camaraderie on the one hand, through Maria Rusche’s breezy camera and Hanna Park’s peppy editing. On the other, it remains smartly conscious of the increasingly trite meanings the term “female empowerment” came to carry in the girl-boss age and the shortcomings of a certain type of feminism that uplifts some, while leaving others behind.

Being among that latter abandoned group, P.J. and Josie gradually come to terms with the screwed up order of things by getting to know their fellow fight club members and, eventually, one another. Edebiri and Sennott are especially great when their respective characters—the gentle and amenable Josie vs. the raspy-voiced, wisecracking P.J.—finally find an opportunity to confront each other within an insightful scene that grasps the complexities and impossibilities of female friendships.

In fact, the scene feels so perfect that you leave Seligman’s outing craving more of the likeminded moments of quiet wisdom instead of all the explosive ones she has in store. Still, “Bottoms” swiftly rises above its minor missteps. Perhaps it’s not quite the teen movie to define a new generation, but it’s one that gets at something unique about female rage and drive, gifting its young viewers a reset button and a release outlet, however imperfect.