' ' Cinema Romantico: Bottoms

Monday, September 25, 2023


Two high school seniors stressing about having sex for the first time before shipping off to college is a teen comedy trope so ancient that I think Aristotle referred to it indirectly in Poetics. Emma Seligman deploys it in “Bottoms” too, though the teens in question are not hapless males a la “American Pie” (1999) or “Superbad” (2007) but hapless girls, queer girls, P.J. (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri), each one pining for a cheerleader convinced they will never land because they reside at the bottom of the social food chain. “No one hates us because we’re gay,” observes P.J. “They hate us because we’re gay, untalented, and ugly.” It’s a funny line, but also a sharp one, conveying how even in a world of, shall we say, rudimentary cultural progress, the hierarchies of high school remain firmly entrenched, no matter what, and the only way to transcend them, or the only way people such as P.J. and Josie think they can transcend them, is by concocting a scheme to get close to the ones they love. In this case, P.J. and Josie take the rumors of their supposed violent juvie past and use it for their benefit, creating a self-defense class as fight club, even if it’s all just a ruse, suggesting Natasha Lyonne’s Megan Bloomfield of “But I’m a Cheerleader” as Tyler Durden of “Fight Club.”

Though it was many things, David Fincher’s “Fight Club” was partly about finding some kind of misbegotten liberation from violence in a society that at the end of the 90s, at least as those wannabe militant bros might have argued, had gone soft from no violence at all. In “Bottoms,” on the other hand, nearly a quarter-century later, the fight club is an extension of a surrounding universe of violence and lawlessness, epitomized in a spate of brilliant worldbuilding. A deer head is mounted to the wall of the foul-mouthed principal (Wayne Péré) office’s, a PA announcement explains the school can’t afford books, and a football player locked in a cage on the periphery of the classroom suggests the Rancor of “Return of the Jedi” waiting for his moment in the sun. (The kid who threatens to blow up the school is presented in a throwaway manner, as if it is so baked into the culture, it hardly resonates.) Parents are virtually non-existent, and Mr. G (Marshawn Lynch) can barely be bothered to instruct his class. In this way, P.J. and Josie’s fight club becomes a safe haven for the girls involved, until the ulterior motives are eventually exposed, breaking it apart before rebounding for a conclusion where their combat skills come to the blood-splattered rescue.

Would that it were so neat. In truth, “Bottoms” is kinda narratively scattershot, raising complications and motivations and then forgetting about them, until it suddenly remembers, like their rival football which is apparently attacking students in the run-up to their climactic big game, though this is merely mentioned, never really seen, counteracting the ostensible feeling of foreboding and preventing the payoff from achieving a maximum force, playing more like a stylized sketch of gridiron gladiatorial spectacle than a true culminating statement of purpose. Nothing, though, can compromise the force of the actors. Edebiri, in particular, whose gift for verbal drollness on the tv show “The Bear” is given ample room to run. One wild, wandering monologue in a parking lot that ends in her car side-splittingly lives out a teenager’s tendency toward melodrama, seeing her whole theoretically ruined life play out in her mind in a matter of moments, Sennott’s I-Can’t-Keep-Up facial expressions standing in for all of us. Their love interests don’t get as much to do, more idealized as characters, but Ruby Cruz makes a mark as P.J. and Josie’s other friend, evincing the most three-dimensional character, getting at real hurt. Summer Joy Campbell, meanwhile, as an eager beaver warrior, harnesses Seligman’s penchant for eye-level shots to the greatest effect, making it seem in the presence of this burgeoning fight club like it’s opened a window into her scorned soul.

As “Bottoms” moves along, a conspicuous sentimentality creeps in, at least a little bit, especially as the various relationships go through their eventual reversals, Seligman and Sennott’s script never as vicious in satirizing the teen movie tropes as it is in fleshing out its universe, and which becomes emblematic of a tonal dissonance between merely heightened and all-out absurdity. Wherever it comes up short, though, that absurdity lingers, taking the notion of surviving high school to the grisly extreme. If once upon a time, in movies like “Blackboard Jungle” (1955) or “Over the Edge” (1979), the kids rebelled, in “Bottoms,” the kids have been left to fend for themselves. 

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