“Tonight is the night,” PJ (Rachel Sennott) proclaims to her best friend Josie (Ayo Edebiri) in the opening scene of Bottoms. “We’re gettin’ in the cooch.” Like its predecessors in the teen sex comedy genre, it’s clear from the outset what these two “ugly, untalented nerds” are after. Popularity? Sure. A legacy that goes beyond gay slurs spray-painted on their lockers? Definitely. But more than anything: pussy. Are they successful? Well, one is. That said, for a film called Bottoms that’s been billed and reviewed as a raunchy queer sex comedy, it’s scant on raunchy queer sex.
Like most teenagers, PJ and Josie are all hot air and hormones. One of the solitary things they talk about is how horny they are for two cheerleaders, Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber). Their plot to get closer to their dream girls at the tippy top of the high school social pyramid hinges on a fight club, in which PJ and Josie would be empowered to engage them in a little rough play. To their shock, it actually works.
Since it premiered at SXSW, Emma Seligman’s sophomore film has built impressive buzz; its current rating on Rotten Tomatoes is a 95% fresh. As someone who’s now seen it three times, I can confirm it’s all well-earned: Bottoms is a showing of incisive humor (for the first time, I laughed at a joke about rape) from an endearing ensemble. But like I said, it doesn’t show a whole hell of a lot when it comes to coitus. Now, while it probably wouldn’t make much sense to include a 14-minute-long, Blue Is the Warmest Color-esque fuck fest in Bottoms, it’s unclear why Seligman practiced restraint here given not much of that is shown literally anywhere else in the film. At one point, a football player is brutally murdered with a medieval-era sword. Even Seligman herself has stressed the importance of showing queer sex on screen—most recently in an interview with Them.
“I get really frustrated when the only form of physical intimacy we can see on screen between queer people is hand-holding, or the most gentle kiss ever,” she said. “A shared peck at the end of the movie, or a kiss on the cheek…I mean, we’ve had to see straight people fuck very graphically on screen for a long time.”
However, she quickly noted similar pressure as a queer director to avoid objectification: “There’s a hesitation that even comes from us as queer artists to portray it because you’re not used to seeing it on screen, especially for queer women showing physical intimacy,” she explained. “You don’t want to be gratuitous or fall into the traps of objectification that straight male directors have created for female characters.”
If avoiding gratuity was the goal, I get it. We still live in a mostly puritanical society—especially where anything beyond sex between two heterosexuals is concerned—and one queer person’s idea of empowering could very well be exploitation for another. Take another recent film about queer love and lust that’s divided the internet: Red, White and Royal Blue. Its more explicit sex scenes have been equal parts praised for their authenticity and bemoaned for letting straights in on the action. You can’t please everyone, etc. etc. Regardless, Matthew López, its director, leaned all the way into filming intimacy between his leads, telling Collider it took “weeks and weeks of conversation and rehearsals” and tight framing on their faces for the sex scenes to look genuine.
Sadly, Bottoms features only the deft framing. Josie and Isabel grow to enjoy each other’s company and PJ, well, she lusts all the more for Brittany despite the fact that Brittany has no discernible identity apart from being really hot. At the film’s climax, as Josie and Isabel realize their feelings for each other, they make out. That’s it. All audiences see of the two girls they’ve been rooting for—one of whom is in a heterosexual relationship—is some heavy petting. The camera actually pans away from what’s clearly foreplay to an open window and then fades out. It’s a confounding tease given this very encounter is what the film’s been building to.
Presumably, neither one of these characters—Josie for certain—has had sex with a girl before. Seligman said she wanted Bottoms to avoid being too “tame and sweet” when it came to its portrayal of queer sex, and frankly, it feels like a missed opportunity not to include some distinctly feminine fumbling, if even for laughs. (Meanwhile, PJ isn’t nearly as fortunate with Brittany, who turns out to be very much straight. In the end, she does make out with another member of the fight club, but at that point, it’s mostly a gag.)
As Jezebel’s Kylie Cheung recently wrote about affirmative consent in teen films, one would be hard pressed to find media depictions of queer youth that don’t rest on “bury your gays” tropes and queer suffering. Given there are so few positive portrayals of queer sex between two consenting young people onscreen, allowing the intimacy between Josie and Isabel to be more than an implication could’ve made Bottoms all the more radical. To be fair, Bottoms borrows a questionable outlook on affirmative consent from its straight teen sex predecessors in that Josie lies about going to juvie to seem more impressive to Isabel. But I’m of the mind that over-inflating some aspect of yourself to a crush in an effort to appear more attractive is a bit more innocent than say, lying about being a virgin to make a girl more comfortable losing her virginity to you (looking at you, Timothée Chalamet in Ladybird).
If any burgeoning filmmaker could thread the needle it’s Seligman. Instead, she played it safe. If you asked me, Bottoms is a knockout with or without raunchy queer sex, but I will always wish it had felt comfortable getting carnal.