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Laughter and tears are like sneezes, physiological responses without aesthetic substance. That’s why I don’t think less of a comedy that doesn’t make me laugh. What matters is the style with which it tries. Though “Bottoms” gave me a few laughs through sheer relentlessness of effort, it’s seriously style-challenged, not least because it tries so hard. The tone is one of near-realism, which seems to promise much in the way of character and situation, but the action stretches from exaggeration to absurdity with a wave of the hand. The plot centers on two lesbian best friends in a suburban high school: PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri). Social outcasts who are seen as (in their own words) “gay, ugly, and untalented,” they have a further frustration: the girls they have crushes on—Brittany (Kaia Gerber) and Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), respectively—are cheerleaders who barely acknowledge their existence. In order to attract the cheerleaders’ attention, PJ and Josie launch after-school, girls-only sessions purporting to teach women’s self-defense training.
To the girls’ surprise, the ploy proves effective. They actually know nothing about self-defense; instead, the group becomes a kind of fight club, and the participants take pride and pleasure in giving and taking beatdowns. But, in courting the cheerleaders, PJ and Josie, plus their right-hand person Hazel (Ruby Cruz), run afoul of the football team and its lionized leaders, the airheaded quarterback Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), who has been dating Isabel, and his sharp-minded teammate Tim (Miles Fowler), who works up a scheme to expose the girls’ self-serving motives. Meanwhile, a long-standing rivalry with another school puts the boys in danger, and PJ and Josie and their fighting cohorts conceive a desperate plan to save the day.
The movie resembles TV sketch comedy, with much of the humor derived from hackneyed situations involving stock characters: the dumb jock, the cooler-than-thou cheerleader, the introvert with untapped talent, the weary principal, the sex-starved housewife. This is the basic raw material of teen movies, but the twists and tweaks to which they’re subjected here reveal more contrivance than insight. And although some of the comedic byways reach exuberant extremes of effect—there’s nifty bomb-making, for instance—what’s driving them remains a matter of directorial indifference. The director, Emma Seligman, who wrote the script with Sennott, hardly bothers with character development. The characters are nothing but a handful of overt desires and idiosyncratic mannerisms, and their actions seem to exist solely to slot into the plot and to generate gags. There is no sense of local context or of a point in historical time. And yet—as evidenced by its box-office success and a chorus of critical acclaim—this is very much a movie of the moment.
What makes it so is the way that Seligman and Sennott (both in their twenties) go about resuscitating a venerable and fruitful genre that Hollywood has largely abandoned—the high-school comedy—on their own generational terms. The tropes of that genre are so well-worn that, to some extent, the flimsiness of the plot and of the psychology can be put down to this self-consciously genre-forward approach. But comparison to modern classics of the form does “Bottoms” no favors. There’s little of the complexity and the range of “Mean Girls” (for starters, “Bottoms” offers almost nothing of its protagonists’ family lives) or of the consequential menace of “Heathers.” (In “Bottoms,” there’s plenty of blood, but death weighs in the action like a hangnail.) Nor does it have the combination of dramatic logic and improvisational wildness that made “Superbad” distinctive. The movie is so focussed on hitting its generic marks that everything else feels underthought and forced—as if once the production was under way, script and direction could take care of themselves. The sole novelty is the gay-centric plotline, though there’s little audacity in the approach to it. (Here, too, there are precedents, such as the 1999 film “But I’m a Cheerleader,” to which “Bottoms” includes a conspicuous homage.) The high-school milieu of “Bottoms” is marked by a casual indifference to matters of sexuality and gender that passes for untroubled tolerance. This lack of politics, despite an all-too-quick reference to one character as a Black Republican, suggests a failure both of imagination and of discernment.
And yet despite all this, I found “Bottoms” eminently watchable, even captivating, because the production as a whole outruns the deficiencies of the writing and direction. The true hero of the movie is the casting director, Maribeth Fox, because she provides Seligman with a generation-defining set of new stars. In that sense, it’s more revealing to compare the movie not to previous high-school comedies but to Joel Schumacher’s 1985 drama, “St. Elmo’s Fire.” What Seligman accomplishes now is what the director Schumacher accomplished then, namely, to emblematize a generation, by assembling a roster of talents who burst out from the movie’s narrow limits and instantly occupy a prominent place in the industry and in the media world at large.
Sennott is a charismatic actress whose fervor fills the screen; she projects tangles of emotion and impulsive intentions even in repose, with a hint of Joan Crawford-like voracity. (I think she’d thrive in a melodrama, too.) Edebiri endows her dialogue with lilt and spin, and her delivery of one extended monologue, in which she anticipates a grim and closeted future, is the artistic highlight of the movie; here, at least, both writing and direction match the performance in inspiration. With Fowler, the wheels are turning—he’s an energetic bundle of thought in motion. Galitzine is a deft impersonator, with an old-school style of music-hall precision, and Cruz conceals secrets with a wry poker face, in the manner of Aubrey Plaza. Adding to the young cast are some veterans, notably Marshawn Lynch, playing a teacher tormented by his impending divorce, who unleashes antic torrents of self-pity, and Punkie Johnson, both grand and understated as a life-hardened elder.
The experience of watching “Bottoms” is weighed down by the movie’s thin drama, hit-or-miss comedy, and merely functional direction—pictures of actors acting. Seligman is nonetheless attuned to the cast’s strengths and alert to moments that spotlight them. That’s why what remains in memory is more than just the film’s general air of vigor, commitment, and shared purpose. There are also powerful afterimages and echoes—mental clips—of certain facial expressions and verbal inflections, moments in which performances seem to detach themselves from the movie at hand and point ahead to a skein of movies to come. It’s not exactly a mark of cinematic art, but it’s nonetheless a major achievement. ♦