The first Saturday of the South by Southwest Film & TV Festival typically features major premieres of indie crowdpleasers at the historic Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas. And the 2023 slate here really felt like it was trying hard to make audiences happy with a trifecta of films about overcoming personal and societal limitations to find what makes you happy. Sadly, the quality this year wasn't as high as recent pre-pandemic fests, but the day did end with a scorcher of a comedy, one of the funniest and most wonderfully anarchic movies I've seen in a long time.
That title belongs to Emma Seligman's delightfully zany "Bottoms," a left turn from her breakthrough "Shiva Baby" into comedic territory that's more like "Heathers" or "Wet Hot American Summer" than fans of her debut may be expecting. Showing a range of comedy styles in just two films, Seligman is clearly a talent to watch, a filmmaker with a strong voice, confident sense of humor, and skill with pacing. "Bottoms" is a barrage of jokes, a non-stop ridiculous movie as it bundles laughs in laughs in laughs. All while charting the trajectory of two young women as they try to grab their chance to stop being ignored by the world around them, a high school power structure that has no place for a pair of lesbian teenagers looking for love and maybe a little bloodshed.
"Shiva Baby" star Rachel Sennott plays PJ, the more aggressive half of a friendship pair with Josie (Ayo Edebiri of "The Bear"). Josie and PJ just want to get down with their crushes, popular girls Isabel (Havana Rose Liu) and Brittany (Kaia Gerber), but Isabel is dating the high school quarterback, and Brittany doesn't pay much attention to PJ. An unexpected series of events allows PJ and Josie to start a girls' club after school—under the lax guidance of a teacher played hysterically by Marshawn Lynch—and what starts as a possible route to feminist empowerment quickly becomes, well, a fight club. The girls become a force for hysterical anarchy as they practice fighting techniques that escalate into actual violence. Seligman reportedly once called the film "Gay High School Fight Club," which gives you some idea of what you're in for.
But only some. "Bottoms" is a crazy film that sometimes plays like a "Scary Movie"-esque parody of high school flicks—the football players literally only wear their uniforms, shoulder pads and all, in almost every scene—and sometimes it's like a skewed take on the typically male genre of teen sex movies like "Superbad." However, this is a wicked smart movie, and Seligman is not a filmmaker content to just crib from movies she likes as much as using them to influence her own vision. There are times when "Bottoms" is legitimately progressive in pushing boundaries of what we usually see in comedies like this. Horny teen boys are such a trope in American comedy, but girls are rarely allowed to use their sex drive as openly as Seligman does here. And the way she plays with violence is gleefully amazing. Some sequences in "Bottoms" are unforgettable.
It helps to have a cast that's all-in on everything Seligman is attempting here. Sennott co-wrote the script, and she's increasingly fearless with each project. Edebiri finds wonderfully vulnerable and genuine beats in a character that could have been more superficial. And the supporting cast is phenomenal, particularly Liu and the great Ruby Cruz as Hazel, a young woman pushed aside by PJ and Josie's quest for inclusion. There's a joyousness to the filmmaking here, a feeling that the ensemble is all on the same page, realizing they're making something that could really connect with its target audience. And that can be contagious.
"New Girl" star Jake Johnson traveled to Austin this week with his directorial debut "Self Reliance," a bizarre blend of the Lonely Island sense of humor (they produced it) with a plot closer to David Fincher's "The Game." If that sounds fascinating, it is ... for a bit. "Self Reliance" is an undeniably ambitious project for a first-time filmmaker, but it's a tonal tightrope that should have been attempted with a bit more behind-the-camera experience. In the end, "Self Reliance" is about finding yourself through connection to other people, but it's so haphazardly structured and tonally inconsistent that it becomes more frustrating than fun, especially in a final act that even veteran filmmakers would have had difficulty wrestling into something effective.
Johnson plays Tommy, a guy who has been stuck in a rut for years. He lives with his mom, goes to his boring desk job, wakes up at the same time every day, and has become so depressingly accustomed to his routine that he rarely even questions it other than when he's trying to work up the courage to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Morales). One day, while walking home from work, a limo pulls up, and the window rolls down to reveal Andy Samberg (playing himself). The "SNL" star insists that Tommy get in the car, and they travel to a remote warehouse location where Tommy meets a pair of foreign eccentrics. They tell Tommy he's been selected to be a part of a dark web reality show wherein people worldwide will hunt him for the next 30 days. If he can survive, he wins a million dollars. Tommy asks what will happen if his mom or sisters are nearby and quickly discovers something of a loophole—the hunters can't kill Tommy unless he's alone. So can Tommy stay connected to someone else for 30 days and win the game?
Of course, most people don't take Tommy seriously, so he hires a homeless man named James (Biff Wiff) to hang with him all day and night. He also puts out feelers online to see if anyone else is playing and discovers a woman named Maddy (Anna Kendrick), who claims she is. But can he trust her? He might not have a choice.
Obviously, "Self Reliance" is about a lonely man learning about the power of connection. But Johnson isn't confident with his themes or plotting to realize the many ideas swirling around this odd duck of a thriller/comedy. After the strong set-up, "Self Reliance" just doesn't have enough actual tension or humor to carry it from day to day in Tommy's journey. When it has the chance to go there in terms of dark subject matter like the potential that none of this is happening and Tommy is suffering a breakdown, it feels like Johnson is scared of getting real. I have always liked Johnson as an actor, and I think he has skills as a writer and director. I just wish he had put this in a drawer for a few years and returned to it after a couple more projects. He might have relied on himself a bit too much here.
Finally, there's the aggressively crowd-pleasing "Flamin' Hot." Directed by Eva Longoria, it's about the true story of Richard Montañez, a man who rose from the janitor's office at Frito-Lay to an executive audience after (allegedly) developing the hot line of products for snacks like Cheetos. Flamin' Hot Cheetos have become a phenomenon, especially with young people and underserved communities, so it's interesting to see how a different perspective—a non-white one—altered a major business like Frito-Lay. The problem here isn't the subject matter as much as the execution. This film has SO many speeches about the cultural importance of what's happening that I half expected to see a flashing "Applause" sign in the corner of the screen after a while. The audience at SXSW did applaud roughly 25 times, so this is a crowdpleaser that pleases. But it's depressingly unambitious, too content to skim the surface of its characters and story in a manipulative and even dishonest manner. It's too superficial to pack any heat at all.
Jesse Garcia stars as Montañez, narrating his life story as a hustler from a young age, selling burritos to the racist kids who threatened to beat him up in elementary school. After marrying his high school sweetheart Judy (movie MVP Annie Gonzalez, who gives the film emotional depth that's more truthful than the rest), Richard decides to leave gang life behind to care for his growing family. He gets a janitor job at Frito-Lay, where he's fascinated by the process of making potato chips, Cheetos, and Doritos, learning from a long-time technician played with appropriate gravitas by Dennis Haysbert. He discovers that the snack company isn't targeting his people, a culture that demands a little more kick with their salty treats, and he endeavors to take his idea for spicy chips to the head honcho, played by Tony Shalhoub.
Of course, there's no movie if Richard fails, so "Flamin' Hot" needs to be more about the journey than the destination, and this trip is filled with hand-holding and simple cultural lessons. Everything about this movie is too polished, with the narration or actual story imparting a lesson about the power of a loving partner, staying true to yourself, or valuing your heritage in every other scene. "Flamin' Hot" has so much to say about culture that it never gives its characters room to breathe outside the movie's "message." It makes for a film that doesn't seem to tell a true story as much as one that came off a product line from a Frito-Lay factory.