Netflix updates Cyrano de Bergerac for the social media era in this clunky teen rom-com, which distastefully hinges on a young girl's perceived unattractiveness.
Now that they have a smash hit in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Netflix needs to up its game in providing youth-oriented content with crossover audience appeal, featuring well-rounded, likable characters in plots that aren’t torn out of the Teen Melodrama 101 textbook. Unfortunately, Sierra Burgess is a Loser, their latest foray into teen melodrama, misses the mark. Written by Lindsey Beer and directed by Ian Samuels, it’s an overlong take on the well-worn Cyrano de Bergerac trope, with one-note characters going to extreme lengths to hide who they really are.
Thank goodness the title of the movie explains what’s wrong with Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser, better known as doomed audience favorite Barb in Stranger Things), because otherwise the audience wouldn’t be able to figure it out for themselves. That’s not sarcasm—Sierra is cute, smart, and funny. In one of the most egregious examples of “movie ugly” in a long time, she’s maybe forty pounds overweight and has unruly curly hair. That’s it. If one were attending, say, Barbizon Supermodel High School, that could be a problem.
But, in real life, there are dozens of girls who look like Sierra in every high school across America, and it’s doubtful that all of them are spending lonely weekends at home being quizzed on literature by their fathers, let alone resorting to catfishing just to get a single crumb of male attention.
There’s nothing wrong with Sierra that dressing like someone other than a middle-aged Midwestern housewife can’t cure, but numerous characters refer to her as a loser, so we’ll take their word for it. Her life at school is a joyless slog of mean girl bullies who saunter through the hallways like soap opera villainesses making remarks about how Sierra looks like a man (she doesn’t, not one little bit), and a college admissions advisor who cynically blows off her perfect test scores because she’s not “selling herself” as something.
Sierra’s biggest tormentor is Veronica (Kristine Froseth), who is, of course, the most popular girl in school (though nobody seems to like her very much), and boasts “20,000 followers, no follow backs.” Noah Centineo, lacrosse-playing dreamboat Peter in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, is football-playing dreamboat Jamey, a student at a rival high school who has a crush on Veronica.
Alas, Veronica’s only interested in college guys, and when Jamey asks for her phone number, she gives him Sierra’s number as a joke. When Jamey texts Sierra, under the impression that he’s talking to Veronica, rather than expressing confusion at why someone she’s never spoken to before is contacting her, Sierra runs with it, even changing her voicemail message so Jamey doesn’t realize he’s talking to the wrong person. Their chemistry is undeniable, and Sierra is immediately besotted with him.
Undaunted when she realizes that Jamie thinks she’s Veronica, and eager to keep the deception going as long as she can, Sierra strikes a deal with Veronica, recently dumped by her older boyfriend because she’s not smart enough for him. Sierra will tutor Veronica so that she can win her slimy ex back, while Veronica will stand in for her when sending selfies, FaceTiming, and even going on a date with Jamey. You might think “Huh. That doesn’t seem like that would work,” and you’d be right.
Sierra puts herself through a series of increasingly embarrassing, near-masochistic situations to avoid telling Jamey the truth, while spying on his dates with Veronica and feeding her lines via text message. One scene, in which Veronica forces Jamey to keep his eyes closed while Sierra steps in to kiss him, is presumably supposed to come off as wildly romantic, but is so awkward it verges into uncomfortable. Regardless, somehow this is better than Sierra having to show Jamey her hideous visage.
During all this, Sierra and Veronica become friends, and Sierra discovers that, behind the bitchy image, Veronica has an unhappy home life, living in a tacky working-class house with an obnoxious single mother (Chrissy Metz of This is Us), who comes off as a third-tier Melissa McCarthy character. This subplot is so pointless and poorly handled that it could have been cut altogether, trimming down the film’s excessive running time. It exists so Sierra can understand that the beautiful people have it rough too. What it takes her entirely too long to understand is that it’s not nice to lie to people, and that she could have saved herself a lot of trouble and heartache if she had simply responded to Jamey’s first text with “New phone, who dis?”
It’s probably not fair to continue bringing up To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before in comparison, but, considering the films were released within weeks of each other, it’s unavoidable. While To All the Boys is light and breezy, Sierra Burgess is a Loser is dreary and plodding, with a climax that hinges on a depressing love song Sierra composes for a class assignment. It’s a very long hour and forty-five minutes, where every teen romcom cliché is hit with Swiss watch precision—the jock is a secret intellectual, the popular girl is wracked with insecurity, the nerdy bookworm is a romantic at heart.
The only thing that feels authentic is how much time the characters spend agonizing over the right response to a text message, or how many failed selfies it takes to get the perfect one. Beyond the issues with consent (that the film never addresses the loss of Jamey’s agency in this entire situation is something that a mere review couldn’t begin to cover), it asks a lot of the audience to be invested in a character who resorts to inexplicable, dishonest, and occasionally downright cruel behavior just because she wants a boy to validate her existence.
The film seems to be trying to say that it’s not easy being a teenager in a looks-obsessed world, and indeed that is true, has always been true, and will always be true. Except there’s nothing wrong with how Sierra looks. When Sierra wails “Do you know how hard it is being a teenager when you look like this?” she sounds almost delusional.
It’s apparent that the filmmakers didn’t count on the audience buying Sierra as unattractive, which is why she wears frumpy appliqued sweatshirts and mom jeans – clothes no teenager, no matter how insecure she is, would wear in 2018. When fashionable clothing chains such as H&M and Forever 21 are selling plus size clothing, there’s no reasonable excuse why Sierra (who is, tops, maybe a size 16) is wearing stuff that you’d find tagged for 50% off at Goodwill. It’s cowardly casting that condescends to the young audience to which it’s trying to appeal.
To be clear, Purser is a fine actor, who does the best she can with a badly written character. All the actors are perfectly fine, including Lea Thompson and Alan Ruck as Sierra’s parents, and particularly RJ Cyler as Dan, Sierra’s best friend. They’re simply ill-served by a tired script and lazy direction, as characters we don’t care about meander towards a conclusion we see coming from a million miles away.
Sierra Burgess Is a Loser works her romantic magic on Netflix Friday, September 7th.