Meet “Bottoms”: She’s the wild, brutish and unrepentantly horny doomer-Zoomer child of the classic Gen-X teen movie “Heathers,” the nasty niece of the Y2K-era black comedies “Jawbreaker” and “Drop Dead Gorgeous.” She’s the naughty little sis of “Mean Girls,” and the bratty cousin of “Superbad,” the BFF of “But I’m a Cheerleader.” It’s been a long time since a movie has been this delightfully, unapologetically and hilariously vicious in satirizing the heteropatriarchy of high-school hegemony.
While “Bottoms,” the sophomore collaboration between director Emma Seligman and star Rachel Sennott (who wrote the film together), has an indisputable lineage, its creators aren’t interested in paying blind tribute. Rather, they co-opt the narrative tropes, aesthetics and iconography of the genre in order to parody the idea of these movies, and to queer the space, piercing a rich vein of untapped female rage that ultimately ends up splattered all over the screen.
In their debut effort “Shiva Baby,” Seligman utilized a jittery hand-held camera to take us inside the anxiety-ridden subjectivity of a chaotic bisexual (Sennott) stuck at the family function, copping the gritty indie style of a John Cassavetes or Safdie brothers movie for a queer female perspective. In “Bottoms,” she and cinematographer Maria Rusche employ the saturated color palette and long, gliding tracking shots that give classic teen movies their slick sheen. But at the center of it all are not a pair of impossibly shiny babes, but rather, two rumpled lesbians sporting an astounding array of baggy rugby shirts.
“Bottoms” is no touching coming-out story for either PJ (Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri). By the time we catch up with the lifelong friends, they are out, and maybe not proud, but at least solid in their sexuality. These two losers want what any high-school losers want: to get some play. They moon over the ethereal Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and the literal supermodel Brittany (Kaia Gerber, daughter and clone of Cindy Crawford), while struggling to get out from the bottom of the social dogpile at their football-obsessed high school.
As the entitled, whiny Jeff, the superstar quarterback and crown prince of their school, Nicholas Galitzine swings in the opposite direction of his character in “Red, White & Royal Blue,” tearing into this toxic himbo role. The boyfriend of cheerleader Isabel, Jeff stands in the way of Josie’s crush, and after a light vehicular assault, rumors of PJ and Josie’s violent past spiral out of control. There’s only one solution to the lie: Start a fight club.
The concept of a fight club itself pokes fun at David Fincher’s hypermasculine 1999 film, but the club serves the same function for the girls as it did the guys back then, allowing them to unleash their primal bloodlust. Their capacity for violence doesn’t stem from a desire to dominate, but to defend themselves. “Bottoms” is both disturbingly and refreshingly frank in how it addresses the casual, normalized violence to which young women and girls are inured. The characters mention their assaults, their stalkers, their rapes (including “gray-area stuff”) in jokes likely to make men squirm.
Their desire to fight comes from the comically out-of-control misogyny and oppression they experience at school. When the club dissolves into infighting and drama, it’s due to the external misogynistic forces that would rather these girls don’t amass their own organized power.
“Bottoms” is an unruly movie about unruly women. Like the characters at the center of the story, it is chaotic and messy and imperfect, but it takes a big, wild swing in grappling with the dark reality of existing as a female-bodied person in a world that either objectifies, rejects or demonizes women who don’t fit a specific mold. Sennott and Edebiri deliver two of the funniest performances of the year, while Seligman savagely satirizes the teen movie genre that has reflected and shaped our cultural understanding of young women.
If it’s imperfect, or certain narrative turns are rocky, you forgive it because “Bottoms” is just so audacious, and most important, the jokes are nonstop. Perfectionism is a trap, anyway.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.