‘Bottoms’ movie is ‘shallow’ and gay. Will straight people watch?

Every queer kid has a formative movie experience.

For this journalist, it was seeing a hunky Brendan Fraser in Disney’s 1997 hit “George of the Jungle.” And for filmmaker Emma Seligman, it was being 14 and watching the 2009 sapphic horror comedy “Jennifer’s Body,” starring Megan Fox as a literal man-eating cheerleader.

“I don’t know what it was” about that movie, Seligman says with a laugh. “I think it was just the age and feeling surprised.”

Now 28, Seligman has made an ultra-bloody high-school comedy of her own with “Bottoms” (in select theaters, expands nationwide Friday).

The irreverent new movie stars Rachel Sennott (“Bodies, Bodies, Bodies”) and Ayo Edebiri (FX’s “The Bear”) as PJ and Josie, two queer outcasts who are so unpopular that even the teachers refer to them as “ugly, untalented gays.” Desperate to have sex before graduation, Josie and PJ start an all-female fight club under the guise of empowerment and teaching self-defense, when all they really want to do is bed cheerleaders.

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The film was co-written by Sennott, who also starred in Seligman’s nerve-fraying debut feature, “Shiva Baby,” in 2021. Bluntly titled “Gay High School” in the script’s early stages, “Bottoms” mixes the gonzo weirdness of “Wet Hot American Summer” with the violent grit of “Kick-Ass.” It’s also a bracingly spiky antidote to the squeaky-clean queer stories we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years.

“One of my earliest motivations was to create a less sanitized movie with queer teen characters,” says Seligman, who uses she/they pronouns. “Not just the coming-out stuff, because I think we’re all tired of seeing that, even though those movies have value. But everyone should be allowed to see themselves onscreen in their most selfish, shallow forms, and teenagers are often the most selfish and shallow out of every age group. They’re also the most honest and ambitious and hormonal.”

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With some radical exceptions such as “Booksmart” and “But I’m a Cheerleader,” most movies about young gay characters focus on the trauma of being closeted (“Moonlight”), shunned by one’s parents (“Boy Erased”), or kneecapped by first love (“Call Me By Your Name”).

But when “Bottoms” begins, Josie and PJ are comfortably out lesbians. They crack vulgar, borderline offensive jokes, and play along with a rumor that they spent hard time in juvenile detention. They’re at times deceitful, manipulative and gleefully libidinous – in other words, all the things straight male characters have been allowed to be for years.

"Bottoms" co-writer Rachel Sennott, left, director Emma Seligman and star Ayo Edebiri pose for a portrait in West Hollywood, California, in June.Download Image
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Seligman wonders if mainstream audiences can accept messy, queer characters. After all, it was only five years ago that a major studio released its first gay coming-of-age film: the well-intentioned but saccharine “Love, Simon.” The movie was a modest box-office success, unlike last year’s “Bros,” a raunchy gay rom-com that flopped despite critical raves.  

“It’s that sort of model minority complex,” Seligman says. “When there’s such little representation of an identity you haven’t seen onscreen, you want them to be perfect. You want them to be really admirable and innocent, and not have anyone doubt their actions or intentions. There’s nothing wrong with a young queer boy trying to pursue love and acceptance. Everyone can be like, ‘Yeah, that’s a really solid, normal goal.’ ”

But with a movie like “Bottoms,” when “you’re at the beginning of a new type of story, you can’t help but wonder, ‘Are straight audiences going to be able to handle this?’ ”

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PJ (Rachel Sennott, left) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri, right) rescue a cheerleader (Havana Rose Liu) from her two-timing quarterback boyfriend.Download Image
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At least so far, the answer seems to be yes. In just 10 theaters last weekend, “Bottoms” scored one of the highest per-screen averages of any movie released since the pandemic began. Like “Love, Simon” before it, the movie could be a groundbreaking step forward for queer representation in Hollywood – but Seligman is reluctant to attach too much weight to her knowingly “ridiculous” and “absurd” comedy.

“I just want to give young queer people a chance to laugh and not have to think too hard and be entertained,” Seligman says. “I remember Ayo saying that this film probably would have helped her (when she was younger), but it also would have really messed her up. And I have a feeling it would have been the same with me, too.

“I want to think, ‘Aw, if I saw this, I would have known I was queer.’ But it also might’ve just freaked me out.”

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