Midway through Bottoms, Josie (Ayo Edebiri) and PJ (Rachel Sennott) reluctantly come around to the fact that the half-baked high-school fight club — sorry, women’s self-defense class — they started has become meaningful to its other members. PJ and Josie, outcasts who founded the club with vague hopes it would get them laid, find themselves under pressure to transform it from just a place where they practice hitting one another into a place where they might actually get to know each other, too. PJ, the more rambunctious of the two friends, blunt forces her way into leading a group-bonding session by asking, “Who’s been raped? Raise your hand!” When that fails to yield a response, she adds, “Gray-area stuff counts too.” It’s the damnedest bit, brutally funny in a way made possible by Sennott’s too-forceful delivery, by director Emma Seligman’s cut to a long shot for the deadpan reveal of everyone slowly lifting a hand, and by its sheer audacity. Bottoms, a jubilant film that Seligman wrote with Sennott as a followup to 2020’s Shiva Baby, moves freely between the surreal, silly, and violent, but it’s never better than when it’s testing the boundaries of taste when it comes to empowerment and misogyny.
Describing Bottoms as feminist feels as unnecessary as pointing out that it’s a comedy — it even manages to slip in a passing joke about the second wave. The film isn’t mocking the urges that draw the other girls to the club in search of solidarity and to be “taught” how to brawl by two liars with no actual experience in fighting. The world in which Bottoms takes place is off-kilter enough that the characters sit down in front of a teacher who never gets around to teaching before the bell rings a minute later (“Seriously, that’s class?” someone mutters offscreen). But it’s still a world in which a semi-sentient football quarterback (Nicholas Galitzine) is believed over women, and in which fight-club members casually mention stalkers the police can’t do anything about and getting assaulted regularly on birthdays. It’s not that Josie and PJ aren’t aware — they just have other priorities, like getting into the briefs of cheerleaders Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber), their long-term crushes who suddenly seem less impossibly distant when they start showing up for some after-school combat. They’re too horny to make time for the patriarchy, and there’s a heady freedom to their lack of focus in favor of more base needs. Isn’t it fundamentally absurd to have to live this way, anyway?
As beloved as Shiva Baby was in film circles, I couldn’t click with its self-dramatizing main character — it felt like being trapped with someone who insists their life is crazy and then tells you an incredibly mundane story to explain why. Bottoms is comparatively unconstrained, a bloody-lipped grin of a movie that recalls, more than anything else, the warped reality of Strangers With Candy. Sennott benefits from being paired with Edebiri, her bluster as PJ balanced by Edebiri’s performance as the allegedly more reasonable of the pair. Edebiri’s got a gift for reaction — she’s so good against Jeremy Allen White on The Bear in part because of the way she exudes very reasonable skepticism and frustration in the face of his character’s disarray. Her Josie is the one who pushes back on the idea of the club and hesitates at running with the rumor that she and PJ went to juvie, and then embraces both anyway, which ultimately makes her come across as equally chaotic as her spontaneous friend.
Edebiri and Sennott are rising stars whose talent has gotten plenty of attention, but there are some nice surprises amid the other performances too. The biggest might involve Gerber, whose Brittany is initially positioned as Isabel’s vacant, beautiful second in command, but whose turn gets sharper and funnier as the film goes along (“Who is bell hooks and why do we care?” she demands as evidence of the pointlessness of an assignment). Former running back Marshawn Lynch has been showing off his comedy chops in various TV appearances (he was the best guest on Netflix’s Murderville), and he’s a standout as the fight club’s faculty adviser, Mr. G, whose opinion of the goings-on is fueled entirely by how he feels about his ongoing divorce at any moment. And Galitzine, fresh off playing the prince in Red, White & Royal Blue, is an ideal meathead, bleating his own character’s name (“JEFF!!!”) like a cry of triumph while thundering through the halls of the school like, well, an inbred royal. If anything, I wanted Bottoms to be even more anarchic, to lean entirely into a reality in which the rival homecoming team is a group of murderous invaders who have to be fought with weapons. As is, it’s still a great — and audacious — time.