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Bottoms on Top

How Emma Seligman revamps the vulgar teen comedy genre

Whatever happened to the perfectly unhinged, theatrically-released, R-rated teen romp? No, not the Netflix franchises that desperately try to appeal to Gen Z with buzzword-heavy dialogue and preppy 90s fashion. I’m talking about the ones that create their own aesthetics and form meaning organically. The chaotic, messy stories that hyperbolize the grossness of growing up. Thankfully, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott are here to save us with their sophomore team-up Bottoms: a bloody and brutal beatdown fest that sums up the status of young and awkward queer women in the world today. 

The film is centred around gay best friends Josie (Ayo Edebiri) and PJ (Rachel Sennott), create a “self-defence” fight club in an effort to attract the interest of popular girls Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber). The club, in turn, becomes a safe space for all the girls in school. The film breathes new life into the gory teen comedy genre in a way that is both simplistic and subversive. It is hilariously self-aware of its themes like identity and typical high school movie structure, relishing in its absurdity rather than forcing discourse. And as a theatrical release, the film could not come at a more crucial time. Not only does it rejuvenate this genre; it shows that young people and artists are not dependent on streaming services — the central perpetrators of the SAG-AFTRA strike — for innovative and provocative content. 

What makes Bottoms so deeply refreshing is its satirical relationship to genre and identity politics – it’s able to make poignant commentary through genius humour. From the jump, Josie and PJ are allowed to just exist in their queerness without the film needing to include some dramatic “coming out” backstory. Nor does it adhere to the one-gay-protagonist-per-film rule, or input unnatural verbal cues that scream “remember: they’re gay!” When the film does reference direct identity categories, it does so in a way that is side-splittingly satirical. In a scene between Josie and fellow club member Annie, Josie delivers the line: “I know you’re a Black republican but you’re the smartest girl in the club.” 

Although Bottoms does include discursive dialogue, it does so sparingly and with great impact. Such is the case near the end of the film, after the horny motives of the club are revealed. Josie is left on the outs with PJ and Isabel and seeks the advice of her older lesbian neighbour, Rhodes (Punkie Johnson), who tells her something along the lines of “when I was in high school you couldn’t be gay. Now you can, nobody cares, but you can’t also be untalented.” This point underscores the very soul of the film, which is that sexual identity today is only a small fragment of the disastrous high school experience, echoing the feelings of all the “ugly, untalented gays” like PJ and Josie. 

Bottoms is just as sharp in its self-referentiality when acknowledging genre conventions. At one point, PJ directly confronts the absurd trope of classes only lasting the span of one scene (“why is the bell ringing? We just sat down.”) The film also toys with the jock archetype through its main antagonist, Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine). His monumentally absurd ignorance – most palpable when he lip syncs “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” blissfully unaware that his house is being egged – relentlessly spoofs the hyper-masculine, narcissistic  way that jock characters are usually portrayed.  

Bottoms lets its social criticism speak for itself,  allowing the film to pack itself to the brim with cutting one-liners, original sight gags and gory slapstick. It is easy to tell that Seligman and her star and co-writer Sennott have been jotting down quips for and writing the film since college, as the script never once misses an opportunity to go for the joke. In the very first scene Sennott and Edebiri exhibit their ludicrously funny chemistry, concocting a horrible yet entertaining plan to get the attention of Brittany and Isabel. By prioritizing the comedic aspects of the film, Seligman and Sennott do something queer, female-led teen comedies are never allowed to do: ditch the sentimentality for pure, uncensored, youthful madness, all without glazing over important themes. 

We have Seligman to thank for the final product of Bottoms achieving all its gruesome glory, because she refused to take no for an answer from producers. Seligman said that it took multiple pitches to get the film picked up, as production companies kept asking her to make it either less violent, less gay, or less sexual. Thankfully, smaller companies like Brownstone and Orion, who did pick up the film, are willing to take risks and support the ambitious work of younger, marginalized artists like Emma Seligman, who share the lived experiences of their characters and intended audience. 

Bottoms being a theatrical release also sets it apart from the content of major streaming services. It firstly is a nod to the origins of the teen sex comedy, which gained popularity in the 2000s with movies like Superbad. But it maintains great authenticity in comparison to the faux-progressive, nostalgia-porn teen films by streaming services like Netflix. Not all of their teen content is bad, but much of it is very clearly an attempt at discursive cinema that is rendered shallow and incomplete by its recycled subject matter and aesthetics. Just look at the Kissing Booth or the To All the Boys franchises. 

Relationships between content and distribution are incredibly important amid the SAG-AFTRA strike. Independent, theatrical distributors are more inclined to release meaningful, personal projects like Bottoms than streaming services. Viewers who appreciate their representation and connect with these works can support it through ticket sales, unlike the unfair compensation creators get from streaming services. These pay cuts also disproportionately impact marginalized filmmakers like Emma Seligman, who is a queer Jewish woman. Although production companies and theatre chains aren’t saints either, going to cinemas and supporting the work of independent filmmakers is an excellent way of supporting artists during the strike. Most importantly, it acknowledges the will of the viewer; young people are not as reliant on titan streaming services as they think we are. We care about good cinema that represents us in our current moment, which for many of us means seeing other weird, unhinged gays try to figure out who they are. And to them, and to anyone else who needs to laugh harder than they ever have, Bottoms is essential viewing.