Plenty of movies and TV shows have presented a funhouse mirror take on the high school experience, from the controversial “Heathers” and “Mean Girls” to Amy Sedaris’ subversive series “Strangers With Candy.”
The new Orion comedy “Bottoms,” like a teen outcast staring longingly at the popular table, desperately wants to join that messed-up catalog of classics.
Running time: 92 minutes. Rated R (crude sexual content, pervasive language and some violence). In theaters.
Its weirdness fits the bill. Director Emma Seligman’s movie abounds with gruesome violence, explosions and bone-dry barbs about suicide.
But while the off-kilter film is a fine showcase for the personalities of two of our best emerging comedic stars, Rachel Sennott (“Shiva Baby”) and Ayo Edebiri (“The Bear”), the humor falls short of being very funny.
Considering the talent of those involved, I laughed a lot less than I expected to.
Sure, shocking comments are abruptly made over and over, such as the cruel school principal calling the “talentless gays” down to his office on the intercom.
However, the jokes don’t land in the deliciously jarring way that makes us howl uncontrollably at the inappropriate. They just sort of happen, and we move on to the next should-be outrageous line.
What works best with “Bottoms,” though, is that it never settles for being the movie you think it’s going to be. It’s its own unique, amorphous thing.
The film starts out, we believe, as an “American Pie” sex romp, with abrasive PJ (Sennott) and quiet Josie (Edibiri) desperately wanting to get with their respective crushes, Brittany (Kaia Gerber) and Isabel (Havana Rose Liu), before graduation.
The plot quickly takes a hard turn toward Crazytown.
Their warped plan? After Brittany is threatened by her unhinged football player boyfriend Jeff (Nicholas Galitzine), Josie and PJ decide to start an all-women self-defense club to teach their friends how to fight. Isabel and Brittany, part of the cafeteria A-list, will surely sign up.
Then the story darkens, and becomes angrier and unsparingly harsh. Despite not knowing anything about combat, PJ and Josie earn the respect of their fellow students by lying about how they killed people in juvy. (They were never even locked up, let alone murderers.)
So the impressed girls take their instruction and bash each others’ faces and kick with abandon. By this point, we don’t believe much of the wackiness that’s happening. We’re likely not supposed to.
Edebiri and Sennott bring the comedy styles they’re best known for. Sennott blows up her Gen Z brazenness that was a riot in last year’s “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies” and Edebiri’s levelheaded deliveries make the most insane ideas sound totally logical and reasonable. The two make perfect foils.
And good for Galitzine, who used to star in terrible movies like “Cinderella” with Camila Cabello, for finally showing different sides of his skillset. As a jock bully, he’s practically Biff from “Back to the Future.” This performance comes just two weeks after his polar opposite romantic comedy “Red, White and Royal Blue,” in which he played the prickly prince of England.
Most enjoyable in “Bottoms” aren’t the high schoolers, though, but the foolish adults around them. Their unwilling club advisor Mr. G (Marshawn Lynch) overshares about his divorce and feelings towards women. And PJ and Josie’s old babysitter Rhodes (Punkie Johnson) smokes cigars outside her trailer and doles out questionable advice.
The finale — an annual football game against rival Huntington — is taken to wild extremes. Blood is shed, people die and pineapple juice plays a vital role.
It’s kooky and committed. But, sigh, it’s just not all that funny.