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'Bottoms' offers an over-the top mix of teen realism and comic exaggeration

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the high school comedy "Bottoms," which opens in theaters this week, two longtime best friends start a fight club for girls as a ruse to hook up with cheerleaders. It's the latest movie directed by Emma Seligman after their feature debut, "Shiva Baby," and it stars the film's lead, Ayo Edebiri from "The Bear" and Rachel Sennott. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: High school is often hell in the movies, much as it can be in real life. But I can't recall a vision of high school as specific in its hellishness as the one in the very funny and sometimes surreal new comedy "Bottoms." It's about two queer best friends, PJ and Josie, who are unpopular not because they're gay but because they are, in their own words, gay, untalented and ugly. Both girls want to lose their virginity before they head off to college, a goal that places them roughly in line with the horny male protagonists of various teen sex comedies ranging from "Porky's" to "Superbad." In its own self-aware way, "Bottoms" is clearly riffing on those earlier movies and many others, from that dark coming-of-age classic "Heathers" to the queer-themed cult hit "But I'm A Cheerleader." The title that gets the most explicit shout-out, however, is "Fight Club."

After a bizarre series of mishaps and misunderstandings at a school fair, PJ and Josie develop an unearned reputation for physical violence, and they realize they can turn this to their advantage by starting a self-defense club for girls in light of recent disturbing incidents around campus. PJ, played by Rachel Sennott, is particularly enthused since she thinks a fight club will improve their chances of meeting girls, like the two cheerleaders, Brittany and Isabel, that they're smitten with. But Josie, played by Ayo Edebiri, is conflicted about the idea, which she thinks makes them nearly as bad as the male predators they'd be fighting back against. They argue over it in this scene with their sort-of-friend Hazel, played by Ruby Cruz.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOTTOMS")

RUBY CRUZ: (As Hazel Callahan) I can't believe they're letting you guys start a fight club.

AYO EDEBIRI: (As Josie) No. They're not. We're not.

RACHEL SENNOTT: (As PJ) What are you talking about? We're going to do it. We're doing it.

EDEBIRI: (As Josie) PJ, I wasn't being serious.

SENNOTT: (As PJ) Josie, did you see the way that Isabel and Brittany were looking at us? Also, you heard the announcements. Girls are terrified. It's perfect. They need this.

EDEBIRI: (As Josie) OK, no, they need, like, mace, maybe. We can't do that, OK? We'd be misleading them.

SENNOTT: (As PJ) Guys do that all the time, OK? That's the point of feminism.

EDEBIRI: (As Josie) That's not the point of feminism. You also don't care about feminism. Your favorite show is "Entourage."

SENNOTT: (As PJ) You're missing the point.

EDEBIRI: (As Josie) I don't really think I am. We don't know how to fight.

CRUZ: (As Hazel Callahan) You guys probably fought girls in juvie.

SENNOTT: (As PJ) No. We were lying about that, obviously.

CRUZ: (As Hazel Callahan) About juvie?

SENNOTT: (As PJ) Yeah. I mean, what?

CRUZ: (As Hazel Callahan) Why would you lie to me?

SENNOTT: (As PJ) You were the one who said we went to juvie. I just didn't correct you. Listen. Self-defense is instinctual common sense. You try to punch me in the face. I stop it from happening. Whatever. I don't care. It's easy.

CHANG: The funny thing is it is pretty easy, at least at first. Brittany and Isabel, well-played by Kaia Gerber and Havana Rose Liu, are among the dozen or so girls who join the club. They all meet in the school gym. And apart from the occasional bruised face or cut lip, the fighting doesn't get too over-the-top initially. The girls may learn to throw and take a punch, but they also experience a newfound sense of solidarity. Against all odds, this violent arena also becomes a safe space. But if "Bottoms" is very much a comedy of female empowerment, it also skewers its own feminism with laughs that catch and sometimes die in your throat. The director, Emma Seligman, who wrote the script with Sennott, treats even taboo subjects with a deadpan matter-of-factness. There are flippant jokes about sexual assault, eating disorders, suicide and school bombings. Hazel turns out to have some skill with homemade explosives. It's the mix of teenage psychological realism and "Looney Tunes" comic exaggeration in "Bottoms" that keeps you off balance. Laughter, it suggests, is the only sane response to an insanely violent world.

The main antagonist here is the school's star quarterback, a rich, entitled bully who's dating and cheating on Isabel. Jocks make pretty standard movie villains, but "Bottoms" gets at something deeper. There's a real undercurrent of rage here at the mindless football worship that holds sway at so many high schools to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. It may be a sly joke, then, that one of the best performances here is given by former NFL star-turned-actor Marshawn Lynch. A big-screen natural, Lynch plays a well-meaning history teacher who wants to be a good mentor and ally to these girls but whose pesky ingrained misogyny keeps popping up at inopportune moments.

The movie doesn't always sustain its comic momentum, and I wish some of the other girls in the fight club had more screen time. But the core of "Bottoms" is rock solid. This is the second feature collaboration between Seligman and Sennott after their terrifically cringy dark comedy "Shiva Baby." It's also the latest collaboration for Sennott and Edebiri after their digital series "Ayo And Rachel Are Single," and their BFF rapport feels authentic even in the most outlandish of circumstances. The two play off each other beautifully and unpredictably. PJ may seem like the bolder, unrulier one at first, but it's the more sensible-minded Josie who ends up pushing the comedy in wild new directions, especially when Isabel starts to return her feelings. Yes, "Bottoms" is a love story, too, and a disarmingly sweet one. It's a merciless comic pummeling that winds up feeling like a hug.

MOSLEY: Justin Chang is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times. He reviewed the new comedy "Bottoms." On Monday's show, we kick off our weeklong celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop with three pioneers - DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel. I hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF EUBIE BLAKE'S "TRICKY FINGERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.
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