Sunday, July 21, 2024

With “Bottoms,” writer-director Emma Seligman turns up the dial a few notches from her darkly comedic first feature, “Shiva Baby” (2021), about a young, financially insecure Jewish woman (Rachel Sennott) trying to make it in New York City with the help of a poorly chosen sugar daddy. “Bottoms” is something of a rimshot off the raucous, sometimes sex-crazed high school hijinks of “Heathers” (1988), “Porky’s” (1981), “American Pie” (1999) and more recently, “Booksmart” (2019), topped with a dousing of social commentary.

This is told with a queer, feminist eye, though – and a wicked, nod-and-wink one at that. Lesbian besties PJ (Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri) stumble into a confrontation between prom-king/QB stud Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine, just seen in “Red, White & Royal Blue”) and his prom queen Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), who thinks he’s cheating on her again (he is, in a Mrs. Robinson/Stifler’s mom kinda way). The power duo form a firewall around Isabel and, in the aftermath, when they are accused of vehicular assault on a cherished local hero, form a fight club for women to empower and defend themselves. The sweet, semi-ironic twist is that the club is overseen by Mr. G., played convincingly by former NFL bad boy Marshawn Lynch in a casting choice that pays off nicely.

That said, a bigger budget doesn’t make for a better film. “Shiva Baby” was so intimate, subtly dark and lived in that you felt you were in every frame. That smaller film allegedly cost less than a half-mil to make, “Bottoms” has a cited budget of twenty-two times more ($11 million). Plenty of blood gets let between the under-the-radar girls, including ultimately pretty popular ones who join, ushered in by Isabel. Under the banner of self-defense, mantras of “just let loose” and “come at me” get issued within the fight circle, and there’s camaraderie as one scrapes the other off the floor. But it doesn’t make sense the way the psycho madness of David Fincher’s “Fight Club” did back in 1999, and it somehow doesn’t quite feel earned (I mean it’s funny, but a faculty member sanctioning such a thing?). Further, the skewers regarding racism, anti-LGBTQ+ and misogyny – all fair and necessary – just prick the surface, and feel platitudinal in the same way Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach articulated things in “Barbie.” It feels raw and edge-pushing as you sit through it, but afterward there’s a want for something more from folks who have shown they can hold us further out on the edge.

But then there’s the ability to make people laugh. The fight club lasses, gay, bi, straight and in between, popular, nerdy and arty, unite to, well, save the resident asshole in a “West Side Story” kinda showdown. It’s grim, hilarious, over the top and ephemeral, but a blessedly gonzo crescendo that you could see gender-pushing visionary John Waters smiling at in smug approval.  

Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.