Laughter and tears, like sneezing, are physiological responses without aesthetic substance. That’s why I don’t underestimate a comedy that doesn’t make me laugh. What matters is the style it tries. While “Bottoms” brought me some laughs through sheer unrelenting effort, it was seriously challenged stylistically, not least because it worked so hard. The tone is bordering on realism, which seems to make a lot of promise in terms of characters and situations, but the action stretches from hyperbole to absurdity with the flick of a hand. The plot centers on two best lesbian friends at a suburban high school: PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Adbilly). Seen as (in their own words) “gay, ugly, talentless” outcasts of society, they have further frustrations: the girls they have a crush on – Brittany (Kaia Gerber) ) and Isabel (Havana Rose Liu)—the cheerleaders who barely acknowledge their existence. To get the cheerleaders’ attention, PJ and Josie launch a girls-only after-school program designed to teach women self-defense.
To the surprise of the girls, this tactic worked. They don’t really know anything about self-defense; instead, the group becomes a kind of fight club where participants take pride and joy in beating and receiving beatings. But in courting the cheerleaders, PJ and Josie, along with their right-hand man Hazel (Ruby Cruz), fight the football team and its highly respected leader, the fool who’s been dating Isabel Quarterback Jeff (Nicholas Galizin) has a conflict. His sharp-minded teammate Tim (Miles Fowler) hatches a plan to expose the girls’ selfish motives. Meanwhile, a long-running rivalry with another school puts the boys in danger, and PJ and Josie and their fighting buddies hatch a desperate plan to save the world.
The film resembles a TV comedy skit, with much of the humor coming from corny scenes involving ordinary characters: dumb jocks, cheerleaders who are cooler than you, shy untapped talents, jaded principals, sex-starved housewives . This is the basic raw material of teen movies, but the twists and tweaks they undergo here reveal more about design than insight. While some comedies go to extremes — clever bomb-making, for example — what drives them is the director’s indifference. Director Emma Seligman, who co-wrote the script with Sennott, cared little about character development. These characters are nothing more than some obvious desires and idiosyncratic mannerisms, and their behavior seems to be just to fit the plot and generate a laugh. There is no sense of local context or historical point in time. Yet, as evidenced by its box office success and critical acclaim, it’s very much a film of the moment.
The reason for this is that Seligman and Sennott (both in their twenties) are, in their own generational way, reviving an old and fruitful genre that Hollywood has largely abandoned— — High school comedy. The genre tropes are so trite that, in part, plot and psychological fragility can be attributed to this self-conscious approach to genre advancement. But “bottoms” offer little advantage over modern classic forms. Mean Girls has very little complexity and scope (for one thing, Bottoms offers very little about the home life of its main character), nor does it have the attendant threat of Heathers. (In “Bottoms,” there’s plenty of gore, but death weighs on the action like a barb.) Nor does it have the combination of dramatic logic and improvised wildness that made “Superbad” special. The film is so focused on hitting its generic mark that everything else feels frivolous and forced—as if the script and director could figure it out themselves once production begins. The only novelty is the gay-centric plot line, though not bold in the way it’s handled. (There are precedents for this, too, such as the 1999 film But I’m a Cheerleader, to which Bottoms pays obvious homage.) Bottoms’ high school setting is marked by a casual nonchalance. Sex and gender issues are considered carefree tolerance. Despite being too quick to call a character a Black Republican, this lack of politics speaks to a failure of imagination and insight.
Still, I found “Bottoms” well worth watching, even fascinating, because the entire production transcended the writing and director’s flaws. The film’s real hero is casting director Marybeth Fox, as she provides Seligman with a generation-defining crop of rising stars. In that sense, it would be more telling to compare the film to Joel Schumacher’s 1985 drama “St. Louis,” rather than to the high school comedy that came before it. Aymo’s flame. What Seligman has achieved now is what director Schumacher has achieved then, namely, to symbolize a generation by amassing a talent pool that emerged from the narrow confines of cinema and immediately took hold in the industry and in the media at large. .
Sennault is a charismatic actress whose enthusiasm fills the screen. Even at rest, she displays complex emotions and impulsive intentions, with a touch of Joan Crawford-esque greed. (I think she’ll shine in melodrama, too.) Ed Beery gives her dialogue a lilt and spin, and a long monologue in which she foresees a grim, closed future is the movie’s main character. Artistic highlights; at least here, the writing and directing are matched by inspired performances. For Fowler, the wheels are turning — he’s a dynamic mind turning. Galizin is a masterful impersonator with old-school, music-hall style, while Cruz, in Aubrey Plaza fashion, hides secrets with a bitter poker face. The young cast also includes some older actors, notably Marshawn Lynch, who plays a teacher tormented by an impending divorce who unleashes hilarious torrents of self-pity; Punkie Johnson, great and understated, plays a battle-hardened elder.
The experience of watching “Bottom” suffers from the film’s thin plot, casual comedy, and purely functional direction (pictures of the actors’ performances). Still, Seligman understands the actors’ strengths and is on the lookout for their bright spots. That’s why it’s not just the movie’s energy, commitment, and shared purpose that stays in memory. There are also strong afterimages and echoes (mental fragments) of certain facial expressions and speech tones, moments in which the performance seems to break away from the film in front of it and point to a chain of films in the future. It’s not exactly a hallmark of cinematic art, but it’s a significant achievement nonetheless. ❖