Bottoms (raunchy, gory, and R-rated-ly glorious) is not what I expected. I knew I had to write about it as soon as I saw the trailer for a teen comedy about two queer high schoolers who start an after-school fight club for girls. I had a plan: I would watch a list of iconic high school movies from the last 30-ish years (about as long as I’ve been alive) to clock what’s changed and what hasn’t. I was particularly interested in the way meanness is used to navigate the teen social world.
On the list: Clueless, Bring It On, Mean Girls. I didn’t want to include Heathers because I thought it was too much in the realm of absurdist fantasy. I nixed Superbad because it wasn’t about girls.
Turns out this list was way off. Bottoms cowriter and director Emma Seligman has referred to Superbad and even Wet Hot American Summer as inspiration. And Heathers is the only teen comedy I’ve ever seen that can rival Bottoms for its sheer outlandish violence.
I ended up only rewatching one of the teen movies on my list (Bring It On). But paying close attention to the way meanness works in an inherently mean and simultaneously deeply silly movie that I’ve seen at least ten times exhausted me. Watching the trailers for the other two to decide which to watch next filled me with dread. Instead, my roommate and I watched the first half of the second season of The Summer I Turned Pretty, another teen-centric piece of media. I let my brain melt into the gooey drama, no analysis included.
But still, I watched Bottoms with an eye out for meanness, since that was the angle I thought I had committed to. It played out subtly towards the other characters at first, directed by the main characters, codependent best friends PJ (Rachel Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri). They give their friend Hazel (Ruby Cruz) the cold shoulder, shutting her down or brushing her off during emotional moments even while she basically runs the fight club. They manipulate the girls who join the club by lying about their experience fighting during their summer stay in juvie, despite never having been in trouble with the law.
Can we even call these tactics mean? What is meanness, anyway? Maybe I would know if I had rewatched Mean Girls. I know that when my friends and I rehash our high school experiences (now blissfully over a decade in the past) we return to a common refrain: “Kids are mean.” We were mean, people were mean to us. And yes, I think it was mostly in this way. We said hurtful things without meaning to, we said nothing when something should have been said, we said things about ourselves that weren’t true. We were selfish, self-centered, and hormonal, just like PJ and Josie.
Late in the movie, Josie is mean to PJ in confrontational ways that I – a Texan raised on passive aggression – could never have imagined as a teenager. Josie’s insults bite because they’re true. Only a best friend can be mean like this, because only a best friend knows how. Josie sees PJ’s motivations and failures with the perspective of intimacy. She can say the things that hurt the most because she knows what those things are.
Though I didn’t watch the other high school movies on my list, I know that this element of meanness was missing from Bring It On, and probably from Mean Girls and Clueless. Like those movies, Bottoms has romantic plot lines. Unlike Bottoms, the friendships in Bring It On, Mean Girls, and Clueless are fresh. They revolve around transfer students. Mean and true things are said, but they are never quite as mean or quite as true as the things Josie says to PJ in the gym.
The fulcrum of this movie isn’t about romance, or competition (even though those themes fuel Bottoms’ motor). The fulcrum is friendship.
The fulcrum of this movie isn’t about romance, or competition (even though those themes fuel Bottoms’ motor). The fulcrum is friendship, like it is in Superbad, another movie that lets its codependent best friends say disturbingly honest and cruel things to each other and come back from it for a big finish.
In interviews with Polyester Zine and Them, director Emma Seligman says that Bottoms came from a need for queer movies that aren’t sweet and innocent. They wanted to make a movie where the queer characters could be anti-heroes, gross and perverted and lovable still. Josie and PJ are not wealthy, nor do they fit the popular cheerleader trope. They also are not innocent queer victims of an indifferent world. Instead, they get to be what Superbad’s main characters Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill) are: horny, manipulative, angsty, terrified, and mean.
I’m not saying these are good things to be, things to which all queer teenagers should aspire. But these are things that teenagers naturally are, girls and boys and non-binary kids, straight and queer high schoolers alike. Even if Bottoms is absurd and unbelievable in many delightful ways, in this way it is totally realistic.
The most fundamental question any of us ask ourselves, our peers, the world: Who am I?
All this thinking about and watching teen-centric content brought up another nagging question. As my roommate put it bluntly last night after another episode of The Summer I Turned Pretty: “We’re in our 30s. Why do we still want to watch this stuff?”
Why is my favorite series Never Have I Ever, the four-season Mindy Kaling comedy about Devi, an awkward and impulsive high school nerd? Why am I counting down the days until the final season of Sex Education, the British ensemble comedy about puberty? And in the meantime, why am I gripped by The Summer I Turned Pretty, even though it is objectively bad? Why did I see the trailer for Bottoms and know without a doubt that I had to write about it?
It’s not purely escapism, the hurtle towards a happy ending that romantic movies and many YA novels are known for. I mean, yes, it is nice to get swept up in problems that I may have overcome long ago, and which don’t usually revolve around paying rent. But the central problem in Bottoms and the other high school movies and shows I’ve been watching lately isn’t simply nostalgic. Instead, it’s the most fundamental question any of us ask ourselves, our peers, the world: Who am I?
Or maybe I just don’t identify as an adult, whether my age claims I should or not. In a dream I had a few nights after watching Bottoms, all the adults disappeared, leaving kids and teenagers to fend for themselves in a fresh new society.
I, of course, was still around.
© Hannah Lamb-Vines (9/25/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read FF2 contributor Reanne Rodrigues’ coverage of Never Have I Ever.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Ayo Edebiri stars as Josie and Rachel Sennott as PJ in BOTTOMS (2023). An Orion Pictures Release. [Electronic press kit]
Bottom photo: Actor Ayo Edebiri, writer/director Emma Seligman and actor/writer Rachel Sennotton the set of BOTTOMS (2023). An Orion Pictures Release. [Electronic press kit]