The high school sex comedy was a staple in popular American cinema from the early-1980s through the end of the 2000s, but it faded away in the 2010s. There were high school sex comedies in the 2010s—Easy A, The To Do List, Booksmart—but they fell off hard when global culture shifted in 2014. A bunch of twentysomething guys playing 18-year-olds trying to get laid by any means necessary just didn’t make sense anymore: boys don’t have to use swimsuit calendars and wood porn to jerk off now. High speed internet, at least at the level that could support streaming video, wasn’t ubiquitous until the 2010s, and when Superbad was released at the end of August 2007, it felt real and current (despite its retro stylizations). These kids probably masturbated to still images of naked women on AOL, or maybe a Girls Gone Wild commercial running late at night on Comedy Central.
The basic parameters of the American sex comedy were the same in 2007 as they were in 1982, when Porky’s officially brought the genre over from Italy. But since smartphones and all that other bullshit has rendered a solid 75 percent of people barely functional zombies, the world of the high school sex comedy must be modified. It’s not just introducing non-white characters, gay characters, and more women, but an overhaul of the basic structure and formula of these movies.
Bottoms reminded me most of Superbad, not just because it feels like an instant classic, but because it has so many of the same story beats: two best friends (Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri) are gay, about to graduate, and desperate to get laid. They form a female fight club under the watch of a very cool teacher played by Marshawn Lynch. At first, only “the ugly girls” show up (“What the hell? It’s all 6’s in here”), but as soon as Sennott gets a black eye, people pay attention. The hot, popular, possibly bi cheerleaders eventually come to the fight club, Edebiri sleeps with one, Sennott tries with another but is rebuffed, their friendship is tested, but in the end all is forgiven and everyone gets together happy. And then, at the very end, they murder the rival football team on the field in front of the entire school.
The high school sex comedy can never be fully vulgar like a college comedy (The Rules of Attraction) or a dead-end job comedy (Clerks, Waiting…) because the characters are necessarily minors, even if their actors aren’t. Bottoms sidesteps this by including so much blunt force violence, and a real rarity in American cinema: young women getting punched in the face, by men and other women. Unlike Barbie, the movie never gets bogged down in contemporary culture war bullshit and zips along with a quick script that never qualifies or “checks itself”—I’ve read some reviews just now that criticize the mass murder at the end of the movie, as if murder or violence or rape can never be funny. With Bottoms, Emma Seligman proves anything can be funny—it’s just how you handle it.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith