After her directorial debut, Shiva Baby, proved to be one of the indie hits of 2020, expectations were high for what Emma Seligman would do next. The film had a real freshness and was pin-point in its depiction of teenage gay angst. It also introduced us to the talents of Rachel Sennott, whose career has since flourished on the big and small screen.
Bottoms reunites them, this time with Sennott and Seligman as co-writers, in a film that aims to revive high school comedies, but with a very 2020s vibe. PJ (Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edibiri) are besties at school, unpopular and gay. Both are desperate for the pleasures of a physical relationship and, in an effort to find themselves girlfriends, start an after school fight club. It attracts a small but dedicated following – including a male teacher – who feel liberated by learning to defend themselves and they also discover a sense of community they’ve never experienced before. A significant football match is looming, a grudge match against another school and the prospect of an influx of intimidating young men gives the club impetus. But the club is built on a lie – more than one, in fact – and eventually the truth will out.
It’s a smart idea and the film gets off to an energetic start, setting up the club and establishing the characters. But after that first half hour, the cracks begin to show and it descends into another gaggle of teenagers all looking for sex. You get the distinct impression that the beginning and end of the script were written first, because the film clearly knows where it’s going and what the climax is going to be, but it hasn’t worked out how to get there. So, for that lengthy middle section, we’re treated to topsy-turvy relationships and just about anything else they can throw into the mix. Something has to stick, right? The laughter of the first half hour soon fades and, while it returns during the finale, it’s more muted and the audience has, to some extent, lost interest.
All of which is a disappointment when the film has two genuine talents behind it. Sennott is as engaging as ever on screen, although there’s a sense that perhaps she needs to move on from being the eternal teenager and make the move into more adult roles. Her ‘partner in crime’ for this one, Edibiri, is the perfect foil – a little more sensitive and unafraid to call out her friend when she goes too far – and they lead an appealing young cast who give it their all. But it needs more, specifically a story that holds together, follows through and doesn’t fall back on being raunchy as a substitute for genuine comedy. Ironically, the most consistently entertaining performance comes from Marshawn Lynch, as the teacher Mr G – a reluctant teacher it has to be said and he’s somewhat over the top, but that’s what the part demands.
Try as you might, it’s hard to like this one as much as you want to, especially if you were a Shiva Baby fan. Instead of breaking new ground, it tries to resurrect a familiar format by giving it a contemporary spin: it becomes more a veneer and one that rapidly wears thin.
Comedy | UK cinemas, 3 November 2023 | Warner Brothers | Certificate: 15 | Dir. Emma Seligman | Rachel Sennott, Ayo Edibiri, Havana Rose Liu, Nicholas Galitzine, Marshawn Lynch.