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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Bottoms"

Film still of Rachel Sennott, Ruby Cruz, and Ayo Edebiri in Bottoms (2023).
Bottoms, Brownstone Prod./Orion Pics./MGM/United Artists Releasing, 2023.
Film still of Rachel Sennott, Ruby Cruz, and Ayo Edebiri in Bottoms (2023).

NATHAN WEINBENDER:

Within the social hierarchy of high school movies, Bottoms is a true misfit, a queer teen comedy closer in spirit and style to Welcome to the Dollhouse than, say, 10 Things I Hate About You. This is a weird, sex-obsessed, occasionally bloody live-action cartoon that pushes the notion of a revenge of the nerds to its breaking point, and like all good teen films, it benefits from zippy one-liners and a fresh-faced cast we’ll be seeing more of.

Rachel Sennott, who co-wrote the screenplay with her Shiva Baby director Emma Seligman, stars as PJ, who would be the biggest loser in her school if her BFF Josie (Ayo Edebiri) wasn’t giving her a run for her money. They’re both lesbians, they’re both virgins, and they’re both in love with popular girls who barely notice they exist. So they do what any self-respecting teenage outcast would do: They start an all-girl fight club to attract the attention of their crushes, head cheerleader Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and the statuesque Brittany (Kaia Gerber).

Well, they spin it as a self-defense class, which is how they convince their teacher (Marshawn Lynch) to sign on as faculty advisor sight unseen. Because of a rumor that they spent the summer in juvie, PJ and Josie discover they actually hold sway over girls who have heretofore eclipsed them. And maybe they’ll finally get some action.

Most high school movies exist in slightly askew worlds where teenagers can be played by 20-somethings, are always professionally styled and are almost never accompanied by an adult guardian. The world of Bottoms is even more cracked: The only parent is shtupping the school quarterback, the principal spits profanity at students over the intercom, and assemblies routinely end in one or more kids being beaten to a pulp.

At its wackiest, Bottoms resembles the outrageous, politically incorrect TV series Strangers with Candy. It also owes a debt to the cult comedy But I’m a Cheerleader, and it’s splashing about in the same gene pool as 1988’s Heathers, right down to their shared subplots about a scheme to blow up the school.

Bottoms has perhaps been oversold as the next outrageous cult sensation, and it’s not nearly as provocative as something like Heathers. Seligman’s and Sennott’s screenplay still adopts the structure of a much more conventional teen movie—there’s even the second-third act bridge in which the friends break up and reconcile—and it’s in those predictable moments when Bottoms most feels like it’s pulling its punches. Of course, that structure is interspersed with actual punches, as well as a couple explosions and a bizarre murder plot involving pineapple juice.

Perhaps the best way to describe this movie’s specific brand of gleeful absurdity is that it’s like watching comedians riffing over the traditional teen movie framework, making up insane plot complications on the fly and following every thread no matter how nonsensical. I was gradually won over by its commitment to its own bit, and by its terrific cast: Nicholas Galatzine is very funny as the dainty but lunkheaded football captain, Ruby Cruz steals some scenes as perpetual third wheel Hazel, and who would have thought that former Seahawk Marshawn Lynch was a natural screen comedian?

And Sennott and Edebiri, the latter of whom is everywhere these days, have real chemistry as lifelong losers who decide they deserve to be Heathers themselves, even if it kills them.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.

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Nathan Weinbender is a film critic and one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.

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  • On this week’s show, Dan Webster, Nathan Weinbender, and Mary Pat Treuthart will be discussing a trio of films featuring LGBTQ+ characters. First up is the American teen comedy “Bottoms,” followed by two foreign efforts: Morocco’s “The Blue Caftan” and England’s “Blue Jean.”