Sierra Burgess is a Loser attempts to be a modern and progressive teen rom-com, but tends to lean on the genre's regressive tropes too much.
This year, romantic comedies are making a comeback in a big way thanks in large part to Netflix. Between the rom-com Set it Up and the streamer's more teen-geared fare like The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I've Loved Before, Netflix is nearly single-handedly reinvigorating the genre. Now, just a few short weeks after the release - and massive success - of To All the Boys, Netflix returns with another teen-geared rom-com, this time starring two actors the streaming service helped make stars. The film, Sierra Burgess is a Loser, stars Stranger Things' Shannon Purser and To All the Boys' Noah Centineo in a modern adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. Sierra Burgess is a Loser attempts to be a modern and progressive teen rom-com, but tends to lean on the genre's regressive tropes too much.
Sierra Burgess is a Loser stars Purser as the titular Sierra Burgess, an incredibly smart high school student who doesn't fit into the societal definition of beautiful - but thanks to a mom (Lea Thompson) with a motivational mantra for everything, Sierra's mostly OK with it. For the most part, Sierra is focused on getting into college, tutoring fellow students and joining various clubs with her best friend Dan (RJ Cyler). That is, until Sierra gets a text from Jamey (Centineo) out of the blue. The pair form a relationship over text, and eventually talking on the phone, despite Jamey not truly knowing what Sierra looks like, or even who she really is. As Sierra later finds out, popular mean girl Veronica (Kristine Froseth) gave Jamey Sierra's number as a prank and that's who Jamey thinks he's been talking to.
However, Sierra starts to fall for Jamey and she believes he could fall for her too - so long as she keeps up the charade of being Veronica long enough. In order to keep it going, Sierra enlists Veronica herself, who agrees to help in exchange for Sierra's tutoring skills to improve Veronica's knowledge so she can impress and win back her college boyfriend Spence (Will Peltz). Through the process, Sierra and Veronica grow closer, with Sierra gaining insight into Veronica's home life and her tough relationship with her mom Trish (Chrissy Metz). Meanwhile, Sierra must live up to the standards set by her mom and her literary genius dad (Alan Ruck) all as she tries to build a relationship with Jamey. Still, as Sierra struggles to balance all aspects of her life, it remains to be seen if she'll be able to maintain healthy relationships once she comes clean - to everyone, including Jamey.
Directed by Ian Samuels, Sierra Burgess is a Loser marks his feature-length directorial debut. The film's script was written by Lindsey Beer, who's worked on a number of upcoming films (including YA adaptation Chaos Walking and Sony's now-split Silver Sable & Black Cat movie) and served as part of the writer's rooms for Godzilla vs. Kong and Paramount's Hasbro Universe. That's all to say: Sierra Burgess is a Loser comes from a creative team of relative newcomers, albeit incredibly buzzy in the case of Beer especially. And while the direction and writing of the film undoubtedly shows potential for both, there's also a sense of unrefined talent. Sierra Burgess is, unfortunately, of the somewhat subpar quality that's come to be associated with Netflix's originals - most of which are buried quickly under the massive amounts of content the streaming service is continually adding.
What helps Sierra Burgess is a Loser stand out, however, are its young leads - Purser, Centineo and Froseth - all of whom bring more depth to their characters through their respective performances. Purser is a little weak as the lead character, having only played supporting characters on the likes of Stranger Things, Riverdale and Rise, but she has a natural and endearingly awkward charm that carries her through. Centineo, as he proved in To All the Boys I've Loved Before, has a lot of charisma as a rom-com leading man and he efficiently shifts into a slightly different character in Jamey (though it's a character fans of his Peter Kavinsky will undoubtedly appreciate). Froseth, meanwhile, also brings a great deal of added depth to what could have been a stock mean girl character. Though she's helped a great deal by the story and script, it's still a feat that Froseth's Veronica is sometimes a more sympathetic character than Sierra herself. Altogether, the film boasts a respectable main cast.
Then there's Cyler's Dan - and, to an extent, the parent characters. Cyler is unfortunately relegated to the token/sassy black friend role, which gives him little to work with. However, the actor does shoulder much of the film's comedy admirably and he works well with Purser to bring their characters' friendship to life. The parents of Sierra and Veronica are similarly sidelined with very little to do aside from provide some insight into the girls' lives or be sounding boards. The issue of Cyler's Dan and the parents being underdeveloped stock characters that play into outdated - if classic - rom-com tropes is one that carries through much of Sierra Burgess is a Loser's script, especially in some of the film's comedy.
There is a sense that Sierra Burgess is a Loser doesn't quite know how to make its story funny without playing into the exact habits and societal expectations it's aiming to combat. For instance, the movie uses offensive jokes about Sierra's appearance to showcase how hurtfully she's treated at school (being likened to a man or called ugly), but similarly offensive jokes are meant to be funny to the audience, like folks mistaking Sierra for a lesbian. It's a strange case of Sierra Burgess is a Loser obviously advocating for everyone to be true to themselves and love themselves for who they are, but then turning around and using marginalized groups as the butts of their jokes - all without interrogating why that might be. Instead, the movie tries to have its cake and eat it, too, being progressive in some ways but falling back too much on dated jokes and tropes.
As a result, Sierra Burgess is a Loser certainly could have been a revolutionary coming-of-age teen rom-com featuring a female lead who shirks societal standards of beauty. And there are undoubtedly successful aspects of the movie, like the complicated relationship between Sierra and Veronica, as they're forced to confront and attempt to transcend society's expectations for them based on their looks. Further, Jamey is a charming and endearing male lead who unfortunately doesn't get nearly enough screen time. But Sierra Burgess is a Loser isn't quite developed enough or refined enough to truly be the progressive rom-com it aims to be. Instead, it's a fine teen rom-com for fans of the genre (or fans of Purser and Centineo), but won't appeal to a wider audience as much as some of Netflix's other 2018 releases within the genre have. Still, as Netflix tries their hand at more and more romantic comedies, Sierra Burgess is a Loser is another indication that the rom-com is making a big comeback - even if they aren't all instant-classic hits.
Sierra Burgess Is A Loser is now available for streaming on Netflix. It runs 106 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sexual references, language, teen partying and thematic material.
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