For nearly 40 years, the films of John Hughes have defined what the teen comedy movie is, and most films in the subgenre sense have something to owe Hughes. From “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to “The Breakfast Club” to “Pretty in Pink,” the 1980s and the members of Generation X who went to high school during that decade saw themselves up on screen for the first time.
On the other hand, you had the wild teen sex comedies like “Porky’s” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which were also telling stories about high schoolers but with a very different goal in mind than the kids who just wanted to hang out with their friends and go to prom.
You don’t see too many comedies like these anymore. There were a few fairly outrageous and boundary pushing films since those ’80s classics — like “American Pie” in 1999 and “Superbad” in 2007 — but they really didn’t do too much different with the genre other than update the lingo and technology.
But now, here to save the genre by completely subverting it and taking all the wind out of its sails in the most hilarious way, are writer/director Emma Seligman and writer/star Rachel Sennott with “Bottoms.” The two had their breakthrough in 2020 with “Shiva Baby,” and continue their hot streak here with another smart, biting comedy about being a young person in today’s crazy world.
With college less than a year away, uncool seniors Josie (Ayo Edebiri) and PJ (Sennott) want to end their careers at Rockbridge Falls High School by doing the deed — a classic teen comedy set-up. Unfortunately, they’re both not popular, not traditionally attractive and lesbians in a small town, meaning their dreams of making it with the lead cheerleaders more than difficult.
But when a miscommunication at the back-to-school fair leads the entire school to believe Josie and PJ spent the summer in juvie, and even killed a woman, the two friends decide to start a girls Fight Club to help their classmates defend themselves from the crazy guys who act like gods, especially the football players.
Josie and PJ soon find themselves in over their heads when the most popular students — including their crushes — join the club and start beating each other up in the name of self-defense, the chance to get to know each other better emotionally and physically arises at the worst time: the 20-years-in-the-making football game against Huntington High.
Except for a couple uses of cellphones, “Bottoms” is a film set out of place and time, happening in any small town high school any time between now and 1984. From the fashion and hairstyles to the cars and the music, it’s an encapsulation of every cliche you’ve seen in every teen comedy from the past 40 years.
And smartly, those tropes are explored through the eyes of what teenagers think and feel while they’re in high school, when both emotions and hormones are running high and every little thing seems like the end of the world. In an early scene, Josie and PJ accidentally bump into the star quarterback with their car, and he’s immediately down on the ground pretending his leg is broken and shows up to school in crutches the next day … until he gets to the football field after school and casually tosses them aside.
But with more prominence of LGBTQ themes and stories today, the main struggles the girls have are again flipped on their head: Josie and PJ aren’t outcast because they’re gay but because they’re untalented and unattractive. But then they get to bond with their fellow losers, as well as a couple of the popular girls, by beating each other up while their social studies teacher (played hilariously by former Buffalo Bill Marshawn Lynch, who steals every scene) cheers them on from the sidelines in the name of feminism.
Although the exploration of the film’s themes mostly stay on the surface with the jokes jabbing the cliches and trends in society rather than digging deeper, there is enough material in every scene to keep the discussion going long after the credits roll. It’s safe to say the future is bright for Seligman and Sennott to do whatever they want and likely succeed with flying colors.