Movies | August 25, 2023 6:13 am

“Bottoms” Cements Rachel Sennott’s Status as an Unconventional Comedy Star

The actress is hilarious as the ringleader of a high-school fight club

Rachel Sennott (center) in "Bottoms"
Rachel Sennott (center) in "Bottoms"

On paper, Rachel Sennott’s filmography doesn’t exactly scream “comedy star.” Her most-seen movie is called Bodies Bodies Bodies, where most of the characters wind up dead. Her biggest role so far is in Shiva Baby, which takes place mostly at an extremely stressful shiva, depicted with nerve-jangling intensity. She also had a supporting role on the HBO series The Idol, which seems like a harrowing experience for all involved: characters, performers and executives who spent millions on one of summer TV’s biggest flops. And yet, Sennott is hilarious in all three, whether the material is mining laughs from dark places or if Sennott’s presence just automatically flicks on a light (full disclosure: I have only seen parts of The Idol that have Sennott in them). 

Sennott worked in forms of stand-up earlier in her career, but her naturalistic way of delivering little electric jolts to movies and shows is more like the Twitter account — since deleted — where she also found early success. She has a way of holding frazzled, step-behind lostness and full-speed-ahead confidence in the same frame, like in the Bodies Bodies Bodies scene where she spins out over the idea that a friend might be hate-listening to her podcast, protesting about how much work it is: “You have to organize the guests, you have to do a Google Calendar…!” The way her voice dips into a lower register with hints of a cracked whine when she’s worked up is reminiscent of Emma Stone — another actor who projected a kind of screwball nerd-goddess vibe in her early work. 

Emma Stone also comes to mind watching Sennott’s new comedy Bottoms, for a couple of reasons. First, Sennott, like Stone did for many years, is jumping back in time to pass as a high-school student. (In real life, she’s closer to 30 than prom.) More prominently, Bottoms shares some DNA, however minor, with Superbad, the teen comedy where Stone made her film debut. In that 2007 classic, two teenage guys — brash outcast Seth (Jonah Hill) and softer-spoken nerd Evan (Michael Cera) — scheme to bring liquor to a classmate’s house party, in hopes that it will help them hook up with their longtime crushes. (Stone’s character Jules is both the party-throwing classmate and one of the crushes.) In Bottoms, two teenage girls — brash outcast PJ (Sennott) and softer-spoken nerd Josie (Ayo Edebiri) — scheme to start a girls’ self-defense club, in hopes that beating the shit out of each other will adrenaline-rush them into hooking up with their longtime crushes. (Both girls are queer and, the movie makes clear, not in a way that brings them any social capital. More than once, they’re called “untalented gays,” and the movie’s winking title supposedly refers to their lowly status.)

Again, Sennott finds herself in a comic premise that could easily be twisted into a horror movie: a desperate, bloody stand taken against bullies, borne out of sexual frustration. But though Bottoms and Shiva Baby share writer-director Emma Seligman, the newer movie (which Seligman co-wrote with Sennott) is broader and sillier — in a way that nonetheless takes some adjusting. Sennott and Edebiri aren’t outlandish, Ace Ventura-esque creations; like the Superbad boys, their overlapping banter has a recognizable real-life rhythm, even if the situations they’re discussing are heightened. They only get more heightened as the movie goes on; Seligman persistently sticks weird sight gags into the frame (a particularly fierce jock spends most of his day in what appears to be a cage, never commented upon) and weird, outsized characters into the narrative (Nicholas Galitzine’s Jeff, the school’s most-worshipped jock, is a preening, loudmouthed, dimwitted cross between an action-movie sociopath and a child lost at a mall). 

As the club members bond, and improve their skills as righteous scrappers, Bottoms echoes Sennott’s own dualities, especially in its use of violence that’s bloodier than slapstick (characters sustain realistic-looking injuries) while maintaining a kind of cartoony iconography: Once PJ gets hit hard in the face, Sennott sports light hematomas under her eyes for much of the movie, creating Peanuts-like accents on her face. Yet somehow this doesn’t scan as either self-glorification or ritualistic self-humiliation.

“Shiva Baby” Is an Incisive and Hilarious Treatise on the Pains of Being a Millennial

Director Emma Seligman and star Rachel Sennott talk sugar babies, career anxiety and the definition of Jewish comedy

It may take viewers a little while to get on the movie’s wavelength, because it often takes a spoofy, Wet Hot American Summer-ish tone without making it clear what, if anything, is being satirized with its rapid-fire gags and reality-bending weirdness. Shiva Baby wasn’t a spoof, but its depiction of a Jewish socio-familial ritual had a genre-savvy slyness. Sometimes Bottoms plays like it’s adding extra quote marks around “high school movie” without much thought to how (or if) the contemporary teen picture relates to its forebears, or to real life. Its earliest details of who these characters are, what they want, and how they intend to get it, spill out in kind of a sweaty rush that lacks the stupid-simple dynamics of Superbad. (PJ and Josie gain fight-club cred, for example, because their friend misunderstands them joking about being in juvie over the summer.) If a target emerges, it’s the idea that the movie might present a simple, empowering set of pieties as a takeaway; in that regard, Seligman doesn’t let anyone off the hook, or maybe lets everyone off.

As much as the film’s high spirits and sometimes-huge laughs propel it moving forward, it’s Sennott and Edebiri who keep the whole thing from contorting into back-breaking archness. They should be too old to play high-school seniors, but there’s something about Edebiri’s gawkiness and Sennott’s slouchy, heavy-lidded posture that gives them a believably teenage gait even as they’re performing star turns. That appears to be Sennott’s specialty: Sneaking an unlikely, ineffable sense of glamour into her portrayals of comic messes. Sennott may well prove a capable dramatic performer, too; there’s plenty of genuinely serious strife in Shiva Baby, and Bottoms has moments of sincerity, too. Right now, though, she seems like the kind of comedy star who dominates her field because she almost doesn’t have a choice.