Emma Seligman’s Sophomore Feature Is No ‘Shiva Baby,’ & But Still Delightfully Subversive [SXSW]

Mar 13, 2023

It’s important to manage expectations, so let’s get this right out of the way: Emma Seligman’s “Bottoms” has little in common with their previous indie hit, “Shiva Baby,” beyond its queer-friendly attitude and the return of star Rachel Sennott. This is a broader and altogether sillier picture. On some level, that’s a little disappointing; “Shiva Baby” felt like something electrifying and fresh, a step past the already cluttered world of cringe comedy into something sharply funny but altogether nerve-rattling. It was a film that seemed to stake out a claim in new territory of psychological comedy; “Bottoms” is treading in more familiar waters, trafficking in homage and throwback. But hey, I’m not here to tell a filmmaker what they should or shouldn’t make next, and facts are facts: once you get on this one’s wavelength, it’s wildly funny and delightfully subversive.
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Sennott and Ayo Edebiri (“The Bear”) star as P.J. and Josie, gay girls entering their senior year of high school and feeling, more than ever, like outcast weirdos. “We’re finally hot!” P.J. insists, and however right she may be, they both turn into fumbling voids when encountering their crushes (“I’ve been building tension,” P.J. explains). Through circumstances, a bit too complicated to explain — and that hardly matter anyway — they stumble upon the idea of running an after-school club for women’s self-defense and empowerment, which basically amounts to a fight club for high-school girls. P.J. figures they’ll get laid a lot. 
This is all worked out primarily in rapid-fire, down-and-dirty dialogue. Sennott and Edebiri make for a dynamite old-school comedy team — their energies (Sennott, the boisterous shit-talker, Edebiri, the murmuring apologist) complement each other smoothly. Sennott has already proven herself a comic dynamo (she’s just one of those people who can get a laugh any time she wants one). Edebiri’s low-key, sideways delivery is absolute gold. “Bottoms” is mostly their show — and notably, though Sennott co-wrote, Edebiri gets more screen time — though pretty much everyone on the deep bench of supporting players gets a memorable moment or two: Havana Rose Liu’s reaction to finding out her boyfriend is cheating, Ruby Cruz’s casual introduction of plastic explosives, and (most unexpectedly of all) pretty much any scene where Marshawn Lynch does anything. 
Cinematographer Maria Rusche (another “Shiva Baby” vet) gives the picture the look and feel of a ‘90s/‘00s high school girl-heavy comedy, recalling “Clueless,” “Mean Girls,” and most importantly, “But I’m a Cheerleader” (which gets a fairly explicit shout-out in one throwaway establishing shot). It’s all big, bright, candy-colored, and giddily goofy, reminiscent of a time in teen movie-making. But “Bottoms” also feels like it’s of this precise moment, digging genuine (and not remotely preachy) laughs out of hot topics like allyship and reproductive rights. And unlike many of its obvious influences, “Bottoms” is firmly R-rated and lightning-paced, throwing all the way back to the glory days of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker in terms of sheer joke destiny and background/foreground comedy compositions. 
Therefore, the picture only really starts to falter when the inevitable third-act pivot occurs, and the filmmakers take their story and its conflicts ever-so-slightly seriously. (A perfectly chosen needle drop, which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling here, all but saves the day by puncturing the left-field melodrama.) And this is understandable; in today’s plot-driven, TV-friendly atmosphere, even an all-joke movie has to have some arc, and it’s tough to sustain the comedic fever pitch of the first hour, though they make a real effort with the blood-soaked climax. That sequence, and frankly, the entire movie, is so willing to go over the top that it threatens, at times, to veer out of control. But Seligman is an accomplished filmmaker, and if this underdog comedy doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of their debut, it also seems to suggest they can make just about any damn wild-ass movie they want. [B] 
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