Netflix’s latest rom-com debuted in the renaissance of romantic comedy. After diverse and fun hits such as Love, Simon, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Crazy Rich Asians, the industry is finally coming back to the genre that has everyone swooning. Better still, romantic comedy is no longer exclusively for thin, white, and straight female lead. Now, everyone gets to find love on screen.
In that sense, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser also promises a new type of lead, one that doesn’t conform to beauty standards. A modern re-telling of Edmond Rostand‘s play, Cyrano de Bergerac, the movie follows Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser) when she gets a text from sweet jock Jayme (Noah Centineo).
Jayme, however, thought he was texting mean-girl Veronica (Kristine Froseth) and Sierra doesn’t correct him. The two fall in love over texts and animal pictures while Sierra and Veronica join forces to keep the ruse going as long as they can. Red flag, yes. And, unfortunately, it gets worse.
Unintentional Problematic Lead
No rom-com is complete without a flawed lead, but there is a difference between having flaws and purposefully catfishing someone. Sierra Burgess’s very premise doesn’t help to ingratiate the lead to the audience despite Purser’s endearing performance. No relatable embarrassing moments can make up for the fact that Sierra is purposefully deceiving Jayme.
As events unfold, the movie turns more and more sinister beneath its pastel tones. Complete with a body-swap that has Jayme unknowingly kissing Sierra and jokes at the expanse of the Deaf and LGBT+ Communities, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser seems completely out of tune with modern audiences’ values.
Even Sierra’s sudden outburst because of her appearance seems out of place. If the movie intended to have Sierra’s body be some sort of insecurity for her, the script failed to convey it from the start. Sierra’s confidence in herself is everywhere in the first act, and she seems honestly unbothered by the meanness of her peers. That the movie had to resort to body insecurities at the end for dramatic purposes feels cheap and unearned. It would not have happened if the lead actress was thinner and it shouldn’t have happened here. Sierra had plenty of moral reasons to be disgusted with herself, but her body wasn’t one of them.
Despite carrying the title of the movie and an excellent actress to humanize her, the character of Sierra Burgess comes across as unlikable and cruel the longer the movie goes on. A beautifully performed song doesn’t make up for catfishing someone or publicly violating a friend’s trust and privacy. Sierra, in fact, doesn’t even earn her own redemption. That task is delegated to the supporting cast and happens for the most part off-screen.
In the end, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser undermined its lead in every turn. If it was supposed to stand against fatphobic narratives that link an overweighed lead’s worth to their appearance, the movie became its own villain. Instead of holding Sierra responsible for her bad choices, the narrative blames it all in her self-image. Sierra is not a good person, but she gets the boy in the end because she is the protagonist. Apparently, being loved “despite” one’s extra weight makes all the wrong-doings forgivable.
It Isn’t All Bad, Though
Still, no movie is a complete disaster and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser certainly has its redeeming qualities. One of them are the performances; its young cast does wonders with some doubtful material. Shannon Purser is great enough to almost trick the audience into liking Sierra. RJ Cyler steals the scene every time his character Dan shows up, and Noah Centineo charms everyone as the unconventional dork-jock Jayme.
The fact that Dan is not just a “gay best friend” and that Jayme has a lovely relationship with his deaf little brother (played by real-life deaf actor Cochise Zornoza) and his dorky friends is refreshing to watch. These two boys feel truly human and not only characters in a movie. Let them be the standard for male parts in teen romcoms for now on.
Yet, it is Kristine Froseth that shines as more-than-just-a-mean-girl Veronica. In fact, Veronica might as well be the most interesting character in the entire story. Initially shown as a heartless cheerleader who picks on Sierra for fun, she is the one who subverts expectations. Bullied by her mother and two younger sisters, Veronica has internalized very toxic ideas. She believes her value is based on her looks and that her intellect is a lost cause.
It is after striking a deal with Sierra that Veronica starts to reassess her core beliefs. The two girls become reluctant friends. Even as they conspire to mislead the poor jock, Sierra and Veronica grow to truly cherish each other. That friendship makes for the most enjoyable parts of the movie, far more compelling than watching an innocent guy’s heart being played with.
The friendship also leads to a true Dorian Gray-induced reflection on Veronica’s part. She goes through the mother of self-improving arcs. When Veronica confronts her mother and fixes Sierra’s life for her, one cannot help but feel proud. This is the transformation the audience wants to watch.
A Schizophrenic Script
For a rom-com, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser works best when it focuses on the friendship between Sierra and Veronica. In that regard, it is a movie worth watching. Sony’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle dipped its toe in bringing the loser and the popular girls together, but this Netflix original that excels on that mission.
Unfortunately, the lack of awareness in the other aspects of the movie makes it hard to swallow. In a way, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser feels like the clash of two scripts. One of them is on par with Insatiable levels of jokes and it tries to sell a “different” protagonist while simultaneously making her as unlikable as possible. The other brings fresh takes on tired clichés and succeeds in telling a story about a girl being proud of herself regardless of her looks.
Too bad that girl isn’t Sierra. Hopefully, Shannon Purser will get material worthy of her skills next time.