Photo: Patti Perret/Orion Releasing LLC
Almost exactly a year ago, the gay romcom Bros was released in the US and greeted in the LGBTQ+ community by open internecine warfare. After the film opened to less than stellar box office figures, lead actor and writer Billy Eichner blamed it on the straights. “Straight people, especially in certain parts of the country just didn’t show up for Bros,” he tweeted. “Everyone who ISN’T a homophobic weirdo should go see Bros tonight.” But it turned out that people in the queer community, either, didn’t want to support a film out of a weird sense of duty, as if buying a cinema ticket were going to lead to deep-rooted societal change.
You sensed a certain turning of the tide against that kind of liberal sophistry: We didn’t want representation to triumph at the box office; all we wanted was a funny film with some jokes about barebacking. And Bros wasn’t very funny. Hell, it wasn’t even as funny as that BBC documentary about Bros, the band – or as gay, for that matter.
Cut to a year later, and a queer sorta-rom mostly-com is doing the business at the US box office, though it remains absurdly stuck in release limbo seemingly everywhere else. Bottoms, a new film by Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott (who already made the excellent Shiva Baby together), has scored the fourth highest screen average of the year and come out to highly favourable reviews.
Bottoms, it seems clear from even the first five minutes of the film, is not interested in being a standard-bearer, a Gen Z Bridesmaids or any other kind of pioneering bastion of diversity – Bottoms wants to be, and is, funny. But in shrugging off all of those mantles, Bottoms ironically gets there: This is the foul-mouthed gay movie we needed, the casually excellent representation of crap, selfish gay losers that we had been waiting for.
Sennott – who wrote the movie with Seligman – stars as PJ alongside The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri, playing PJ’s best friend Josie: two deeply unpopular lesbians intent on getting laid before they leave school for university, a classic movie trope that borrows from a more straightforwardly bro-y tradition that includes American Pie. In that structure, Bottoms is somewhat reminiscent of Booksmart, the 2019 high-school comedy in which another pair of lifelong best friends, unpopular nerds played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, set out to party on their last day of high school.
But where Booksmart was worthy and somehow grandstanding (the girls are intelligent – it turns out quite popular – and gratingly use “Malala” as a code word), Bottoms is puerile and goofy, absurd and often divorced from reality in a way that allows it to get away with some risky stuff. PJ and Josie are bleakly funny, but not whipsmart; they call themselves ugly and untalented, and the film never explicitly corrects that characterisation.
In this, Bottoms is already far ahead of so many other recent queer comedies, such as Bros, Fire Island, or Love, Simon. Billy Eichner, playing Bobby Lieber in Bros, is presented to us as a sort of archly seething outsider figure, who is insecure and jealous and won’t allow himself to give in to love, though the film never quite allows that representation of him to materialise.
Instead, Bobby gets a routinely hot boyfriend, is seen to be intelligent and talented and politically aware, and is himself a perfectly handsome gay white New Yorker. Meanwhile, PJ and Josie have “Faggot #1” and “Faggot #2” daubed on their lockers (Josie: “Oh come on, I got Faggot #2 again?!”). At one point, a voice comes over the school’s tannoy announcing, “Will the ugly gays please report to the principal’s office?”
This feels so fresh and welcome, because it makes one enormous joke of gay assimilation: in the universe of Bottoms, nobody has the slightest problem with Josie and PJ’s sexuality; they just think the girls are untalented. (In one of the film’s best jokes, a jock is overheard saying to a flamboyantly camp boy: “Rock on man, I love what you’re doing with the school play.”) That removes a dreary element from Bottoms, which is the trope of worthy or heroic queer characters.
Compare this with other recent queer misfires: In Fire Island, seemingly every character is lovable, smart, beautiful and witty, while Bros is so constantly aware of putting a foot wrong that it doesn’t put a foot anywhere. In Clea Duvall’s romcom Happiest Season, the heroine comes off as a monster who shoves her girlfriend back into the closet to appease her family – but the film isn’t even aware of how it comes off, so it arguably doesn’t count. Happiest Season sleepwalks into another queer film pitfall, which is playing to the straight gallery: making a parade of queerness and explaining it to heterosexuals in a way that others homos. Bottoms invests us fully in Josie and PJ’s world, taking a steer from their selfish and manipulative subjectivity as the two start up a fight club in their school in order to meet hot, popular girls. In other words, Bottoms takes gayness for granted – doesn’t apologise for it, doesn’t laud it or really even comment on it.
Now, if Bottoms is able to take risks, that’s because it’s a comparatively small film, and Bros fell apart because it was aiming for box office domination. But that’s a problem inherent in queerness – namely, that it cannot ever be mainstream. Any project presenting queerness to a sizeable audience will necessarily diminish, dilute or otherwise betray that queerness: The film can be a kind of mirror image of heterosexuality, but it can never be queer, because queerness is about the sidelines, the in-jokes, the interstices.
Bottoms is by no means perfect: it seems inconceivable, for instance, that both these two dyed-in-the-wool teen lesbians would be into the thin and popular girls at school rather than more obviously gay-coded women. But then again, Bottoms cultivates its own thrilling unreality – this is a film in which two 26-year-olds play teenagers without bothering to really age down, and where their teacher reads a magazine called Divorced and Horny in class. That enables Bottoms to play around with the teen film: These girls aren’t here to stand for anyone – they’re just there to make you laugh.