If you're asking yourself, "Hmm, have I seen a funnier movie this year?" during a screening, that's a good sign.
I asked it during "Bottoms," the profane, feminist and outrageously smart satire from director Emma Seligman, who directed the almost-as-good "Shiva Baby." Seligman wrote the viciously witty "Bottoms" screenplay with her "Shiva Baby" and "Bottoms" star Rachel Sennott, who plays a high school student named PJ.
Along with fellow nerd Josie (Ayo Edebiri, from TV's "The Bear"), PJ is trying to figure out how to get noticed in a high school that is dominated by cheerleaders and football players (the star of the football team is depicted in a mural on the cafeteria wall in which he's the naked "man" half of the "Creation of Man" image in which God produces life).
Both leads have played their share of savvy characters, so it could be disorienting to watch them play young innocents whose seduction game is as painful as PJ and Josie's is (both, by the way, are lesbians) and who come off badly even when they think they're nailing it. Like when a jock tells Josie, "I do not talk to ugly girls in overalls," and she replies, "I might be ugly but these are not overalls."
As a sign of how low they are on the popularity meter, even school administrators disrespect them, as reflected in this intercom announcement that summons them for discipline: "Would the ugly, untalented gays please report to the principal's office?"
The cringe factor is high in "Bottoms," which is at its funniest when PJ and Josie are at their lowest. The humor shifts into another gear when they accidentally stumble on the idea of a fight club to empower themselves and their female classmates (the club is coached by former football great Marshawn Lynch, who's a deft comic actor). Suddenly, they have achieved their dream of popularity — or, at least, popularity-adjacence. But, predictably, that isn't as satisfying as they hoped.
The shadow of "Heathers" lingers over "Bottoms," not just because of the high school setting, the nerds-vs.-cool kids theme and the surreal, anarchic touches that begin to creep in. It's clear the filmmakers are fans of that Winona Ryder gem and, although it's often true that people inspired by a movie err when they try to recapture its charms, they seem to know exactly how to achieve what "Heathers" did.
It's a tricky balancing act. Our protagonists sometimes do really bad things but the movie wants us to like them, anyway. And, given that the club they started is devoted to people beating each other senseless, the action gets quite brutal. But what keeps "Bottoms" in its funny-but-mean sweet spot is the genial performances by Sennott and, especially, Edebiri, as well as the feeling that we're in their heads the whole time — meaning we're not necessarily getting an accurate picture of what's going on.
So, yes, "Bottoms" is well worth seeing. And, yes, it is the funniest movie of the year.
***1/2 out of 4 stars
Rated: R for crude sexual content, violence and pervasive language.
Where: In theaters.