An early draft of this review was originally published on September 1, 2023,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, months before it appeared here.
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Bottoms is a movie that might reopen wounds for fans of the Seattle Seahawks.

The dynamic new comedy team of Emma Seligman (director and writer of Bottoms) and Rachel Sennott (co-writer and star) — whose first collaborative feature Shiva Baby was one of 2021’s most celebrated indie films — knew what they were doing when they drafted former Seahawk running back Marshawn Lynch to their team for his first big-screen role. In these 92 minutes, they go to him over and over again, showing better judgment than the Seahawks did with the Super Bowl on the line. And he delivers.

Marshawn Lynch proves he’s got the stuff for a future in big-screen comedy. Let him cook. [Image from the MGM red-band trailer.]

And that’s just one of the best reasons to see Bottoms.

Lynch plays Mr. G, a high school social studies teacher who shows no qualifications whatsoever. His class unit on feminism, for example, suggests he hasn’t even bothered to Google it, and he’s likely to turn his dubious “history lesson” on the subject into a flat dismissal if the free-thinking young women of his class step on his toes, without any perception of the irony.

But this isn’t a movie about Mr. G.

It’s about two of those free-thinking young women: PJ (Sennott, more ascerbic and confident with each performance) and Josie (the ubiquitous and delightful Ayo Edibiri of Hulu’s The Bear). Branded as the “ugly and untalented gays” of Rockbridge High, PJ and Josie are cooking up a scheme to lose their virginity before graduation.

Their plan is simple: Exploit the fears and vulnerabilities of their peers. They’ll host an all-female fight club after school to train girls in self-defense before the annual football-game clash with the notoriously predatory jocks of their rival school, Huntington High. Apparently, these Rockbridge/Huntington clashes on the football field always inspire further violence off of the field: assault, rape, even murder. But PJ and Josie aren’t actually qualified to train anybody in anything. So, to fake their credentials, they spread a fake story about having done hard time in juvenile detention.

Josie (Ayo Edibiri) and PJ (Rachel Sennott) brainstorm ways in which they might score with their dreamgirls before graduation. [Image from the MGM red-band trailer.]

Will this wild story spark their dreamgirls’ curiosity and eventually make sexual conquests possible? Will Mr. G give them the support they need to get the club up and running? Will they have the guts to throw actual punches? Or will they be exposed as the horny and desperate liars that they are?

Okay, I admit: The Teen Sex Comedy is not a genre I give much attention to.

And there are a lot of legendary entries in that genre I’ve never seen, including Wet Hot American Summer and Superbad—both films that are mentioned in almost every review of Bottoms. So, this is not subject matter anybody is likely to seek out my perspective on. Why bother writing about it then? I’m writing because that’s the best way I know to process what I experience. I bought a ticket to Bottoms because some of my students were raving about it. And what do you know—the movie gave me a lot to think about.

Before I go into greater detail about why I laughed all the way through this marathon of bold and dirty jokes, I need to preface my praise with a remembrance of Michael Lehmann’s unconventionally crass high-school satire Heathers. The two films have a lot in common, and in the 35 years I’ve had to suspiciously interrogate myself about my affection for Heathers, I’ve realized some things that helped me recognize right away why this brazenly R-rated comedy was making me cringe, laugh, applaud, and struggle.

PJ, Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), and Josie have the school’s misogynistic narcissist in their headlights. [Image from the MGM red-band trailer.]

In 1988, Heathers shocked rom-com lovers with very R-rated dialogue, explicit sexuality, and violence so over the top that it made John Hughes high-school comedies seem like after-school specials for kids. And its punchlines left some of viewers punch-drunk and offended, while others were punch-drunk and exhilarated.

I was among the exhilarated.

Heathers, like two of its spiritual predecessors Harold and Maude and Better Off Dead, is a comedy about social outsiders, peer pressure, the pain of humiliation, and the reasons that so many high schoolers entertain thoughts of suicide. The titular “Heathers” are a vain and cruel clique of popular girls at a high school toxic with typically damaging teen hierarchies. When Veronica, the only non-Heather of the clique, gets kicked out of the group, she falls in with J.D., a mischievous newcomer who refuses to let the jocks push him around. Together, J.D. and Veronica — played by Winona Ryder and Christian Slater in performances that made them cult heroes — fulfilled the fantasies of high school outcasts by rebelling against the tyranny of an elite clique. They launched a wicked plot against the Pretty “Powers That Be,” aiming to kill them off and make their deaths look like just another trend in teen suicide.

So, yeah, it’s dark. But even though I, as a conservative and insecure 18-year-old, felt like I was way outside of my comfort zone when I saw Heathers for the first time… I loved it.

We have a complicated history, Heathers and I.

As most of my readers already know, I grew up in a private religious school system — kindergarten through high school. And, as I hope you know, the realities of any private school are far more complex than their supporters or nay-sayers tend to acknowledge. Was I living in “an evangelical bubble”? Yes. Was that bubble quite toxic with fearmongering about “the world outside”? Not everyone was guilty of that, but yes, absolutely. Was it a training ground for right-wingers in the culture wars? In some classrooms and sub-groups, yes.

But I am also grateful for the experience. Our high school emphasized good sportsmanship, good citizenship, and “loving our neighbors” more than other schools probably did. And the prioritization of Bible studies gave us all an education in the teachings and ministry of Jesus, teachings that stand in stark contrast to the priorities of today’s Christian Nationalist movement. Most importantly, I had several great teachers who were intent on helping us discern between the Gospel’s grace and the dangerous distortions of the “political church” in America. They counteracted right-wing indoctrination with guidance in wisdom, critical thinking, and genuinely courageous faith.

Nevertheless, we were also a community of kids prone to the same misbehaviors, insecurities, peer-pressures, and abuses as any other teen population. Sports still received far more energetic fanfare than academics, and the most talented male athletes and their girlfriends (usually cheerleaders) were treated by their peers as the de facto Kings and Queens of the school.

The “Heathers” of Heathers — three girls named Heather plus Veronica (left) — are a familiar kind of clique that seems to infest almost every high school.

Those of us who fell short of elite status felt like — and were often treated as — outsiders. I withdrew from sports in high school in part because I found more fulfillment in creativity than competition, but also because I was increasingly uncomfortable with the increasing intensity of the drive to win, a misleading vision of how faith was connected to victory (an ideal that still infects a lot of sports-focused Christian entertainment), and by the ways in which the Powers That Be overlooked and excused the meanness of both boys and girls as if such behavior “just came with the territory.”

Thus, movies about students who had passions other than sports, students who prioritized education, and students who cared about each other with civility and kindness — these made strong impressions on me and some of my similarly alienated peers.

Instead of making the popular girls into villains who need to be humiliated, Bottoms — like Barbie — suggests that they just need to be educated about their own exploitation. [Image from the MGM red-band trailer.]

Heathers scared me with its brash fun-house-mirror distortions of high school life — distortions that truthfully testified to the real-world ugliness that most high-school movies, preoccupied with matching up pretty girls and brawny boys, ignored. The movie was disturbing in its frankness about the cruelty that runs rampant within teen hierarchies. But it was also thrilling in how it dramatized the fantasies of anyone who had imagined pushing back against violence with violence. Heathers made me laugh for how it exposed the emptiness of popularity and the dangers of superficiality. Moreover, it was cathartic to see the outsiders have their day, and to see the elite paying a price for their vanity and their insensitivity to others.

I enjoyed all of it — particularly because it wrapped up by 1) turning the tables against the vengeful rebels themselves, and, 2)  showing that such sensational vengefulness is ultimately a self-destructive endeavor. Watching the movie, I could enjoy my violent fantasies and then feel absolved of my sins at the end.

High-school quarterback Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine) tries to extract his girlfriend from the automobile of the “ugly, untalented gays.” [Image from the MGM red-band trailer.]

But an unsettling feeling lingered after the credits rolled every time. On some level, I realized that Heathers was reveling in its spirit of righteous anger and vigilante vengefulness, and I didn’t like how easily I was won over into cheering. Veronica’s last-minute transformation into a saintly young woman of conscience felt unconvincing. It was almost like the the filmmakers knew they’d been playing a dangerous game, fueling fantasies of vengeance in an audience that might not be wise enough to know the difference between satire and a summons to violence.

There were other reasons, though, that Heathers felt dangerous in a good way.

1. Artful Profanity

Many — perhaps most — in my conservative Christian school community treated R-rated language as Grade-A sin. In Heathers, there was a thrilling sense of liberation in how the movie acknowledged the crassness and cruelty of high school villains, but gave the oppressed characters license to cuss with vigor. Having to live in a world of abuse, their language seemed appropriate as a response to the far-worse offenses they were suffering. After all, words mean things. People can use words inappropriately, but there are no “bad words”: If you use an f-bomb to describe how you are being exploited and abused, isn’t that… precise and truthful language? In Heathers, the profanity felt true to the context and the occasion.

Josie and PJ improvise excuses for their misbehavior to the high school principal. [Image from the MGM red-band trailer.]

2. Strong Women

Many — if not most — people in my community defined gender roles narrowly and frowned upon (or ignored) exceptions. And they found ways to manipulate Bible verses to back up the New Law they had written to organize their world and push out those who made them uncomfortable. Heathers pushed back on the rigid parameters of conventional gender roles, giving us examples of young women who found the freedom to fight back against abuse and degradation.

3. Non-Binary Thinking

Many — if not most — in my community defined sexuality as a purely binary matter by God’s design, and condemned exceptions as willful disobedience without discussion, overlooking Jesus’ tendency to overturn hierarchies and embrace the exceptions and outsiders. Heathers, more than other teen comedies I can remember, was generous and inclusive in the characters it portrayed as the oppressed. It made room for us to care about gay characters, and acknowledged, if only briefly, the prevalence of prejudice. As I was incredibly naive about sexuality even into college (due to an overwhelming cultural silence on the complexity of the subject), I remember Heathers as being one of the first movies that made me stop and ask some of the important questions that had been suppressed: Did I have any classmates or peers who weren’t straight? Was anyone in my community afraid to be honest about who they were and what they felt? Were any of them feeling judged and condemned? (I would learn later — yes, of course they were. Quite a few of them, in fact.)

4. Frank Acknowledgment of Abusive Behavior

Many — if not most — in my community tolerated, ignored, explained away, or were too naive to acknowledge cases of sexual harassment and misogyny. I would hear testimonies later from trusted friends about things they suffered or witnessed that were ignored or missed by teachers and administrators, or that the Powers That Be brushed off as misunderstandings or as “boys being boys.” Heathers portrayed abuse as abuse, and it felt good to see abusers called out.

Looking back more than 30 years, I can see why Heathers seemed revolutionary to me. It was saying things out loud forcefully about high school, about power, and about sexuality that I hadn’t experienced at the movies before. It was saying things that I didn’t hear expressed enough in my small, cloistered community. It called out forms of injustice I hadn’t really seen clearly before. And, for better or worse, it appeased viewers’ anger about those injustices with spectacular — and, more importantly, satirical — violence. (Brian Dannelly’s 2004 comedy Saved! did this in similar ways, and applied them in the context of a private school that greatly resembled my own.)

Josie admires her first fight-club scar. [Image from the MGM red-band trailer.]

Today, I understand and appreciate Heathers’ angry spirit. I can appreciate how effective satire can, by exaggerating matters that are otherwise minimized, help us start facing and reckoning with the whole truth, even though I also think it’s dangerous to throw fuel on the fires of teen anger.

Heathers can, for some audiences, do more harm than good. It can throw fuel on the fires of cynicism. It can, for viewers who lack discernment, appear to be condoning violence against the elite, the popular, the powers that be. I remain somewhat unsatisfied with how much energy it gives to appeasing our desire for equal and opposite violence against violent oppressors, while it gives feeble attention to the essential qualities of restraint and compassion — to say nothing of that most scandalous of Christian ideals: love of one’s enemies.

And that’s why I say that Bottoms is Heathers for 2023.

Seligman’s film is going to offend the squeamish; they won’t take well to its R-rated violence and sexually frank dialogue. It’s going to offend those who have no idea about the toxic realities that high schoolers — yes, even Christian high schoolers — deal with on a daily basis; they will call its explicit treatment of sexuality excessive, for starters. And it’s going to be judged in conservative circles as culturally poisonous for how it takes for granted that, yes, a lot of young people don’t fit into their narrow definitions regarding sex and gender.

Josie and PJ run smack into the consequences of making false claims. [Image from the MGM red-band trailer.]

Me? I’m troubled by the fact that its understanding of the relationship between love and sex seems stuck in shallowness and superficiality. It mistakes love for hormones, and seems inclined to hold up romantic love — or, more narrowly, merely sexual satisfaction — as the supreme goal of human existence. If you’re not getting some in this world, your life seems somewhat meaningless. But isn’t this true about most romantic comedies for audiences of any age? That’s hardly a problem unique to Heathers and Bottoms.

Otherwise, I love the characters in Bottoms. I love the way the satire exaggerates things that need to be lampooned so that they can be called out. (In that sense, Bottoms had a whole lot in common with Barbie, another film that clearly sees how young women are conditioned to believe that they only options available to them are limited and degrading.) I also love one of this movie’s more dangerous aspects: how it allows its satire to go tumbling into absolute absurdity, much as Heathers does, so that it ends up as a rom-com with a body count that makes no sense whatsoever.

There might be hope for the “mean girls” of Bottoms. [Image from the MGM red-band trailer.]

(This particular exaggeration of high school sports is particularly meaningful for me, as it seems like America’s obsession with physically violent sports is amplifying and accelerating our culture’s devolution into violent tribalism. So many who surrendered to the religion of physical dominance in high school sports have become supporters of the MAGA insurrection, favoring a might-makes-right philosophy and fascism over democracy. Bottoms’ big, loud jokes about this will make some viewers uncomfortable because such satire exposes cultural addictions we don’t want to admit. And any effective recourse against such societal cancers would require sweeping changes to our cultural traditions and obsessions — which isn’t likely to happen in our lifetimes.)

So, while I can’t say that Bottoms strikes me as a movie with much wisdom to offer on the subject of love, it does give us a revealing comedy about abuses of power and privilege that are learned behaviors, abuses that are modeled for young people by adults and then practiced until they become destructive traditions and institutions. Like another controversial 2023 feature film, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, it understands the problems very well. And then it pours a lot of passion into depictions of “fighting back” that may not, in the long run, be the better part of valor.

In this high school, the jocks (like Tim, played by Miles Fowler) are always in jerseys. [Image from the MGM red-band trailer.]

Having said all of that, I’m stuck with this reality: I laughed a lot. As PJ and Josie, the two “ugly and untalented gays” at the center of the drama, Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edibiri (who is having a year!) are sensational. They both deserve to be treated as big-screen superstars now, if they aren’t already. And their supporting cast is outstanding.

For me, the MVP here is Ruby Cruz. Her character gives the film a stronger heartbeat, and she finds moments of subtlety and nuance in her performance beyond what the screenplay demands. She looks like she has the potential to take on complex dramatic roles in the future.

Actress Ruby Cruz is my Bottoms MVP. [Image from the MGM red-band trailer.]

Just as the comedy team of Seligman and Sennott did with Shiva Baby — a comedy so bitter and despairing that I couldn’t laugh without also feeling sick — they twist their knives here in ways that vividly expose just how awful human beings can be to each other, even as they don’t seem to know much about who we can be at our best, or how we might move in that direction.

Do I recommend Bottoms?

I’m not going to make that call. I think that what I’ve written here can give you a good idea about whether this movie is for you or not. It’s not a film I’d watch again for its wisdom. But I do admire how, beneath the brashness and the cynicism, Seligman and Sennott seem to care about these characters. There’s a pulse of empathy and tenderness for these trouble-prone teens who have not yet discovered that hormones are unreliable compasses. They all have a lot of growing up to do in order to learn the difference between sex and love, and that only the latter leads the way to fulfillment — in any aspect of life.

But then, haven’t we all been there?