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'Bottoms' gives the classic teen sex comedy an absurd queer twist

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The teenage sex comedy is a classic cinematic art form in America, right? Think "Superbad," "American Pie," "Risky Business." But, you know, in the new movie "Bottoms," writer-director Emma Seligman turns the classic genre on its head in an absurd queer twist. The movie centers around best friends and general high school nobodies PJ and Josie, played by Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri. They want to get the attention of their crushes, so they start an all-girls fight club at their school.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOTTOMS")

RACHEL SENNOTT: (As PJ) We bond. We share. We connect. We're punching each other. Adrenaline is flowing. Next thing you know, Isabel and Brittany are kissing us on the mouths.

CHANG: I talked to Seligman earlier, and I asked her, what was the movie that she set out to make?

EMMA SELIGMAN: I think I just wanted to make something for queer audiences, especially for queer teens, with horny, shallow...

CHANG: (Laughter).

SELIGMAN: ...Hormonal, flawed characters...

CHANG: Yeah.

SELIGMAN: ...And also a queer movie that is in, all the right ways, stupid.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOTTOMS")

AYO EDEBIRI: (As Josie) OK, we'd be misleading them.

SENNOTT: (As PJ) Guys do that all the time, OK? That's the point of feminism.

EDEBIRI: (As Josie) That's not the point of feminism. You also don't care about feminism. Your favorite show is "Entourage."

SENNOTT: (As PJ) You're missing the point.

EDEBIRI: (As Josie) I don't really think I am.

SELIGMAN: I love seeing representation in all kinds of ways, but I'm tired of having to watch darker queer stories or, you know, queer stories where I have to think a lot about my identity and the dark parts of it. I just wanted to create something mindless and fun.

CHANG: Well, I mean, as you totally accurately point out, horny teenagers has been, like, such the theme of so many comedies going back decades. But I was wondering, was there any part of you, when you were writing this with Rachel Sennott, one of the co-stars, that felt you had to hold back a little on the raunchiness because this is a story about horny lesbian teenagers, a part of you that felt maybe you couldn't go full-on raunchy with teenage lesbians because maybe audiences still aren't ready? Was there any part of you thinking that, worried about that?

SELIGMAN: I don't think as we were writing it I was worried about it, but I think I look back on our writing process and see that I was holding back in terms of writing the same level of raunch that you've seen in straight sex comedies for a long time. And I think that just came from the fact that I haven't seen it too much on screen, particularly with queer teens. So, yeah, I do think I was worried about going too far to a certain degree because you also - you know, when you're portraying an identity onscreen that hasn't been portrayed for very long in a variety of ways, you're walking that fine line of wanting to, you know, not offend anyone and wanting to have sort of honorable queer characters that represent our community well. But at the same time, you want them to be real and flawed and messy.

CHANG: And fun.

SELIGMAN: And fun, yeah, and human. Yeah.

CHANG: Yeah.

SELIGMAN: It's tricky.

CHANG: Well, on some level, do you think absurdist comedy is a way to get people more comfortable with ideas that they've been uncomfortable with in the past?

SELIGMAN: That's such a good question. Yeah, I do think so. I think that when you're just throwing everything up in the air and you're telling an audience, this is going to be in a world that you haven't seen often where it's a heightened version of our world, where everything goes and characters can get away with a lot more than they can in our world...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOTTOMS")

WAYNE PERE: (As Principal Meyers) Will the ugly, untalented gays please report to the principal's office?

KAIA GERBER: (As Brittany) Guess that's you guys.

EDEBIRI: (As Josie) Hello, Principal Myers. First of all, I want to say, God bless.

PERE: (As Principal Meyers) Shut up. You know why you're here.

SENNOTT: (As PJ) I don't, actually.

PERE: (As Principal Meyers) For committing a crime against Jeff, our quarterback and the most good-looking, all-American, red-blooded, muscular man this town has ever seen.

EDEBIRI: (As Josie) Sir...

SELIGMAN: ...I think it allows for bigger risks, you know, when it comes...

CHANG: Yeah.

SELIGMAN: ...To showing stuff on screen you haven't seen before.

CHANG: I get the sex comedy part of this film, but tell me more about why you wanted to see these girls punch each other, to literally have blood-splattered faces in this story. Talk about that.

SELIGMAN: Well, I think initially, I really wanted some sort of hero's arc that occurs in a lot of other teen movies like "Scott Pilgrim" or "Kick-Ass" or "Attack The Block" or even movies like "The Goonies," you know, where there's typically a group of boys getting together to save the day. But I think as we were making it, I just realized, like, how cathartic it felt to show girls - like, angsty teen girls, you know, with a lot of hormones, with a lot of anger...

CHANG: Yeah.

SELIGMAN: ...You know, taking it out in this empowering...

CHANG: Totally.

SELIGMAN: ...Way that felt unexpected. I think so much of the time, girl power or female empowerment on screen looks a very particular kind of way and is quite intellectual and super-positive and super-sanitized. And so there was just something really fun and liberating about showing these girls kicking the [expletive] out of each other.

CHANG: I love that. You know, the casting in this film was awesome. Can we talk about Marshawn Lynch as the girls' teacher? He's, of course, a former NFL running back, Super Bowl champion, and he is hilarious in this role. Did you write the role with Marshawn Lynch in mind?

SELIGMAN: No, we didn't write it with Marshawn in mind, but we definitely hoped we could have someone unexpected in the role, someone that would make the audience surprised and be confused a little bit. And I'd seen Marshawn in an episode of "Murderville" where he improvised the whole episode...

CHANG: Oh.

SELIGMAN: ...And thought he was so hilarious. And we just offered it to him. And I think he was really confused as to why we thought he'd be perfect in this movie in particular, but he ended up being so good in it. He's one of the best improvisers I've ever seen at work, and most of - not most of, but I'd say about half of his dialogue is improvised.

CHANG: Really? Oh.

SELIGMAN: He's - yeah. He's really, really funny and really talented. I think anyone who knows him from his NFL days and the press he would do or not do knows how funny he is and how absurd he is. But he really shined on set for sure.

CHANG: Well, about casting, I do want to talk about, you know, authenticity because there is a lot of pressure now on filmmakers to cast actors whose lived experiences are relevant to their on-screen roles. You've talked about how, with queer actors and roles specifically, this is kind of complicated. Can you explain why?

SELIGMAN: I think it's complicated because often the general public will assume an actor is straight when they have not identified their sexuality. And I also think that when you're casting, it's uncomfortable and, I think, like, not OK to ask someone what their sexual, you know, preferences are or to ask them what their sexual identity is. But it's really important, I think, that we uplift queer actors, you know, and are thinking of them and having them in mind when it comes to casting for queer characters. But I also think that it's really unfair to assume that every actor who has not publicly identified themselves is straight.

CHANG: Right.

SELIGMAN: So I think that's part of the reason that it's tricky. But it's really an important conversation to be having, I think, because so much of the time, once an actor does come out, even in 2023, it's like straight roles are off the table for them. So I think that it's an important dance.

CHANG: Emma Seligman directed the new movie "Bottoms," out today. Thank you so much. This was really fun.

SELIGMAN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLI XCX SONG, "CONSTANT REPEAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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