While watching SIERRA BURGESS IS A LOSER, I kept getting distracted by how startlingly accurate it was. There were so many small moments that reflected my generation’s experience that I was compelled to look up the screenwriter, Lindsey Beer, to see if she was some 21-year-old Hollywood prodigy.

We, teens, do sometimes say things we think are deep, reflective, and definitive that are actually cringe-inducing and misinformed in retrospect. We spend most of our time doing homework and agonizing over text messages and college admissions. But most of all, we search for the place we belong in society — and fear that it’s not where we want to be. SIERRA BURGESS IS A LOSER is a funny and thought-provoking, albeit standard, teen rom-com with a good heart. There are some glaring flaws, however, and your enjoyment of the film will honestly correlate with how willing you are to look past them.

What’s SIERRA BURGESS About?

Like CLUELESS and 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU, SIERRA BURGESS is based on a classic story. In this case, it’s the much-adapted 1897 play, Cyrano de Bergerac. Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser) begins an over-the-phone relationship with a good-looking quarterback, Jamey (Noah Centineo), after the beautiful head cheerleader Veronica (Kristine Froseth) gives him Sierra’s number instead of hers as a prank.

Jamey thinks he’s conversing with Veronica. Sierra, afraid of losing his interest, strikes up a deal with the real Veronica. Sierra will tutor her to help her win the approval of her boyfriend, and Veronica will help Sierra maintain her relationship with Jamey by standing in for her when needed.

Jamey calling Sierra in Sierra Burgess is a Loser
Jamey calling Sierra. Courtesy of Netflix

Through her phone, Sierra grows flirty and comfortable with Jamey almost immediately. They ask light questions to get to know one another, banter and have deep nighttime conversations in that not-quite-self-aware way teens do. Shannon Purser and Noah Centineo, with all their smiles and eyebrow flashes and fidgeting during their interactions, have a sizzling chemistry that begs for resolution.

The Character of Sierra Burgess

But as they grow closer, Sierra grows worried about the inevitable reveal of her true appearance to Noah. Why? Sierra Burgess, for sure, isn’t a loser — she’s intelligent, with a substantial knowledge of literature; ambitious, hoping to attend Stanford; and confident in herself, unfazed when Veronica insults her looks to her face. Her parents have seemingly instilled in her a healthy self-esteem, and her best friend Dan (RJ Cyler) is always by her side for support.

MISEDUCATION — Courtesy of Conversion Therapy

Yet, getting closer with a love interest is different. It brings out insecurities you didn’t have before. It brings out a dependency you’ve never felt before. You being fine with your looks matters less; their opinion matters more. And that forces you to care, at least a little bit. And when nearly every girl who has gotten the guy in a movie, TV show, or book cover bears more resemblance to the ethereal Veronica than yourself, how can you whole-heartedly believe that you’re enough?

SIERRA BURGESS Has a Stunning Cast

Sierra Burgess — intelligent, ambitious, and confident, with body-positive parents — still can’t quite eschew societal standards. Shannon Purser (Barb on STRANGER THINGS) deftly portrays this complexity. She is Sierra Burgess, or comes across as it, with all the snark, the self-assuredness, the vulnerability needed to play such a fleshed-out character. Noah Centineo as her love interest is at his peak charm, expressing a bit more humility and sweetness than his character Peter Kavinsky in TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE.

Dan and Sierra in Sierra Burgess is a Loser
Dan and Sierra. Courtesy of Netflix

I liked every one of the supporting characters and actors in this film. Like unicorns, they aren’t believable, but they are fun to indulge in. Sierra’s caring and accomplished parents are practically too perfect. (Her dad is a famous writer with an endless supply of literary quotes and quiet wisdom.) I hesitate to remove “practically” because Lindsey Beer based them off her own parents. Sierra’s honest and encouraging English teacher is the “Best Of” compilation of my own former English teachers. Mandatory BFF Dan is always entertaining, firing most of the funny lines. I wish, however, that his character had more to do in his own life than constantly propping up Sierra.

PEPPERMINT More Bitter Than Sweet

SIERRA BURGESS Doesn’t Shy Away from Tropes

SIERRA BURGESS doesn’t try very hard to avoid the signatures of every other teen movie. There’s the keg stand, the big dance at the end, and the two bitchy cardboard cutouts whose only purpose is to trail their alpha MeanGirl. But SIERRA BURGESS does build MeanGirl Veronica herself a personal life and sets her on an arc that runs satisfyingly. It transforms a stereotypical queen bee into, well, a human being.

(Not-really-important side note: I found that Veronica would invest so much time into studying philosophy and literature like Hamlet and A Picture of Dorian Gray just to win a college guy over quite unrealistic, though. When we meet him, he seems to be light years away from the kind of boy who would truly appreciate his girlfriend discussing Plato while making out in a car.)

Sierra and Veronica in Sierra Burgess is a Loser
Sierra and Veronica. Courtesy of Netflix

The Third Act Threatens to Derail the Movie

The climax and resolution are where SIERRA BURGESS gets messy. It hinges around an event that is entirely avoidable and made me lose much of my sympathy for Sierra. This might be a good time to address the pall hanging over the movie — the catfish concept. Catfishing is absolutely wrong in real life, and in the movie, it was certainly manipulative and created some consent issues.

I trusted the film’s good intentions, however, and managed to put it out of my mind for a large chunk of the movie, especially in moments when Jamey and Sierra’s relationship was more mental than physical. I was hoping that Sierra would face real consequences at the end, or at least somehow redeem herself.

Sierra and Jamey Facetime in Sierra Burgess is a Loser
Courtesy of Netflix

But SIERRA BURGESS is too timid to swerve from the typical rom-com beats despite its out-there premise. With one of those beats being a conventionally happy ending, the movie does everything it can to stay on track. The eyebrow-raising attempts to resolve the conflicts created earlier feel flat and rushed, leaving too many things unsaid. With these quick mop-ups, the ending becomes unbelievably, undeservedly clean and tidy, when it could have more daringly explored the implications of Sierra’s actions. 

One small light in the ending’s disorder is the beautiful, slightly-cheesy song presented. At first, I found the lyrics pessimistic and discouraging. They seemed to say: Others will perceive you how they want; there’s nothing you can do but wait. But maybe it’s not a song for us to sing, but for us to hear. Maybe we can’t change how others perceive and accept us. We can, however, change our perceptions and accept other people. Beneath its own flaws, that might be what SIERRA BURGESS is trying to say.

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