One of the most accomplished debut films in recent memory, writer-director Emma Seligman’s 2020 “Shiva Baby” probably would have become a phenomenon had it not been released during a pandemic. The movie eventually found an audience on streaming services, with good reason. Starring Rachel Sennott as a directionless college student who moonlights as a sex worker, the svelte 77-minute indie traps her at a funeral celebration of a semi-forgotten relative alongside her parents, an ex-girlfriend and her favorite client, ratcheting up the anxiety by cramming them all into increasingly uncomfortable proximity. Only 24 years old when the film was shot, Seligman expertly conducts the cringe comedy but avoids the climactic conflagrations you keep thinking are about to happen. When the tension finally becomes unbearable, the movie sidesteps catharsis to settle on something quieter and more humane.
There’s nothing humane about “Bottoms,” Seligman’s shockingly violent, wildly raunchy follow-up, which contains all the eruptions and release that the filmmaker’s previous picture denied. And then some. Co-scripted with star Sennott while they were working on “Shiva Baby,” it’s a deliberate inversion of that film’s elegantly escalating discomfort, tossing out insane comic conceits and fourth-wall-breaking asides sometimes seemingly at random. At once a horny high school sex comedy and a self-aware deconstruction of the same, “Bottoms” feels unhinged, in ways both productive and puzzling. One thing’s for sure: this is not another teen movie.
Sennott and Dorchester native Ayo Edebiri star as PJ and Josie, awkward outcasts at a suburban high school where even the principal refers to them as the “ugly, untalented gays.” (Josie’s mentor, wryly played by “Saturday Night Live” cast member Punkie Johnson, reminds us how far we’ve come. Back in her day, everyone just hated her for being gay, but now everyone hates PJ and Josie for being ugly and untalented, too. Progress.) This is one of those movie high schools where all the kids look like they’re pushing 30, and everyone’s obsessed with the football team. Yet these genre standards are elevated to the point of absurdity. The players wear their pads and jerseys to class every day, while pep rally signs look suspiciously like religious paintings. PJ seems to be the only person who notices when the bell rings mere minutes after class has begun so that the movie can move on to the next scene.
It takes a little while to get on the film’s hyper-exaggerated wavelength, which wobbles between satirical surrealism and joyous obscenity, with something intriguingly darker lurking under the surface. It helps that Sennott and Edebiri are hysterical together. Anyone who watched their “Ayo and Rachel are Single” shorts on Comedy Central already knows these two have honed a hilarious dynamic, with Sennott’s frazzled chaos agent energy countered by Edebiri’s sneaky understatement. As with her terrific performance as the calm center of the calamitous kitchen on Hulu’s “The Bear,” Edebiri is adept at making an impression amid more manic co-stars.
PJ and Josie are lesbian versions of the tumescent teens from high school comedies dating back to 20 years before “Superbad,” sexually obsessed with the cheerleading squad and desperate to shed their virginity before college. (That such filthy-minded hounds can now be queer kids is another sign of that progress Punkie was talking about.) Their scheme is to start an afterschool self-defense class — about which PJ and Josie know nothing — as an excuse to get sweaty and roll around on gym mats with other girls. These sessions turn into something more like a fight club, with the young ladies finding it surprisingly therapeutic to break each other’s noses in the name of sisterly solidarity. Even the cheerleaders join in.
Non sequiturs abound. Some are genuinely gut-busting, while others are just strange. Surprisingly, several of the deftest line deliveries come from former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch, playing an oblivious faculty advisor too distracted by his divorce to see what these girls are really up to. (I had no idea Lynch was so funny, and he’s a good sport to co-star in a movie that hates football players as much as this one does.) The ramshackle plotting ramps up to terrorist attacks and an assassination attempt during the big homecoming game. Honestly, I’m pretty fuzzy on the mechanics of the movie’s crazily bloody climax, but by that point, you’re so bowled over by the freewheeling audacity that it’s hard not to get swept along and enjoy the carnage.
Such silliness alternates with a darker undercurrent to which Seligman doesn’t entirely commit. A club meeting beginning with the question, “Anyone here been raped?” walks the movie’s gleefully offensive dialogue right up the edge before becoming a thoughtful — yet still gasp-inducingly funny — exploration of the awful things young women are expected to endure as part of growing up. (One of the characters explains how she can’t legally do anything about her stalker until he tries to kill her, and she’s getting tired of waiting.) It’s like America Ferrera’s big “Barbie” monologue by way of the 1988 teen suicide comedy “Heathers,” and I wish the film had a few more scenes like it.
Scattershot as “Bottoms” can sometimes be, it is nonetheless heartening to see a movie in which gay teenage girls get to be as lewd and irresponsible onscreen as their straight male counterparts have been for decades. Whether we’re watching Sennott launch into unprintable rants like she’s the female Jonah Hill or a miracle of a monologue in which Edebiri imagines a closeted future as a Christian wife, there’s a rudely unapologetic, empowering energy that carries you through the picture’s rough patches. As in this past summer’s taboo-smashing “Joy Ride,” it’s fun when the girls are as gross as the guys. Like Punkie said, progress.
“Bottoms” is now in theaters.