Bottoms: SXSW Film Review
Bottoms is an unpredictable, over-the-top (ironically) high school comedy that finds sharply relatable truths within its hilarious insanity.
Right before Bottoms started, the person introducing the film told us to snapshot whatever expectations we were having, because they were guaranteed to differ from what we actually ended up getting. And … wow, where’s the lie? Do you want a high school comedy where teachers read porn in a classroom, pep rallies contain brutal student-on-student violence that’s fully school-approved, and murderous football rituals are commonplace? Of course you do! What sane person wouldn’t? Which is why Bottoms is the film for you, and easily my favorite film of South by Southwest I’ve seen so far. Its writing and directing are so gleefully unhinged while still mostly honing in on timely and relatable high school dilemmas – buried under all the blood and stuff – that anything I say will fail to do it full justice. But, let’s try.
PJ (Rachel Sennott, who also cowrote the film with director Emma Seligman) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) are two unpopular queer friends who face emotional and sexual frustrations. They decide to start up an all-girl fight club at school, whose mission statement is to empower female students in an aggressively threatening school environment … though initially, their goals are just to hook up with cheerleaders they have crushes on. Even though Brad Pitt isn’t here, things escalate in this fight club nonetheless as tensions rise between the fight club and the increasingly hostile football team. The feud causes both sides to go to extremes as the girls’ purposes for being in the club are thrown into question.
It’s honestly hard to know where to start with Bottoms, so I’ll go with what may be the most jarring aspect for some: the writing. If you’re looking for realistic, natural-sounding dialogue, turn back right now, because Bottoms is clearly not aiming for that. Outlandish things are said by equally outlandish personalities pretty much every minute. That’s not new to anyone who’s a fan of satire, but Bottoms goes to such extremes in both the frequency and content that I can see some people finding it too much to handle. Even I needed a little time to get on the film’s wavelength. Once I did, though, I was laughing hard along with everyone else.
This is the kind of comedy that throws everything possible at the wall, with so many jokes flying in your face and lurking in the background that Edgar Wright would be proud. This could easily go south if it was just random weirdness for the sake of random weirdness, but it’s … mostly not. There are some jokes that either don’t seem to have a point or go against a character’s personality. For example, someone learns that her mom is sleeping with someone else, but she thinks that the person’s name is a safe word and not his actual name. That’s funny, but it’s also coming from a character who’s smart enough to not have that confusion.
But moments like that are the exception rather than the rule. A majority of the humor feels like it’s being written not as a realistic depiction of high school, but as an exaggerated version of what high school can feel like. So, school jocks go from being dimwitted jerks with toxic bouts of violence to full-blown psychos and sniveling man-children. Teachers go from ignoring what their students are dealing with to directly insulting them over the intercom. It’s all satire, and it’s so relentless and detailed that you’re both laughing at the absurdity and upset by how stacked the deck is against certain people.
Bottoms presents a very flexible reality where just about anything goes, but it still keeps its purpose focused. It uses the absurdities as commentary, or sometimes as character arcs within the film itself. PJ is humorously contradicting herself all the time and barely hides her own vanity, but that comes into play as a legitimate problem that needs to be dealt with. A character played by Ruby Cruz (who gives the most consistently vulnerable performance of the film) is constantly the butt of intentional and accidental jokes, but that is again addressed, without breaking the deranged edge that Bottoms has.
The finale to Bottoms alone is worth a ticket price. It’s hilarious, over-the-top, bloody, and cathartic in a really twisted way that I can’t wait to hear more people talk about. I wouldn’t in any way call this an “action film,” but when fights do go down, they’re really well shot and choreographed … and, of course, brutal as all hell. But even then, the heart of what’s going on ends up shining through. Bottoms really performs a miraculous tightrope walk, showing you something so nonsensical and outrageous but having it, even in the moment, still somehow feel relatable. Or, if you can’t directly relate to certain scenarios – I’m not female, for instance – you still see how others would.
Bottoms might be too extreme for some audiences to handle, but I really want it to do well, if for no other reason than to make sure every actor involved is recognized for what they do here. None of them are huge names, but in an ideal world, this would be the film that catapults them all into the big time. They’re incredible, especially Rachel Sennott, who has the most range to cover and still never misses a single beat. Between Bottoms and last year’s Bodies Bodies Bodies (which has often confused me into nearly calling this film Bottoms Bottoms Bottoms), she’s officially on a hot streak that I hope is only just getting started. Bottoms will find its home, I’m sure of it. And I’ll be among the first in that group.
Also … best use of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” ever. And maybe the best use of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” ever. Those two songs have not left my head since last night, so thank you, Emma Seligman.
Bottoms premiered at SXSW 2023 on March 11-15, 2023. Read our SXSW reviews!