Review, Sierra Burgess is a Loser: Millennial re-telling of Cyrano De Bergerac doesn't land in 2018
Review by Ellie Johnson
Sierra Burgess Is A Loser is the well-meaning tale of an average girl finding love. Its intentions are good, albeit questionably executed through tropes masquerading as lessons for teens in seeing people for who they really are.
In a casting breath of fresh air, it’s Stranger Things’ Shannon Purser in the lead as Sierra, a precocious band geek with an aptitude for writing and one friend (a scene stealingly good RJ Cyler). Her father is a famous author, her mother full of self-affirming mantras. Sierra is self-assured, as far as teen film losers go; she has no qualms in swatting away insults with a shrug and doesn’t seem to long for the life of her popular peers.
That is until a dreamy footballer mistakenly sparks a late-night text exchange with her under the impression he’s texting pretty but cruel cheerleader Veronica (Kristine Froseth). When Sierra realises Jamey (Noah Centineo) doesn’t know who she really is, she decides she needs some help to keep her true identity a mystery.
So, the band geek joins forces with the cheerleader and, in what becomes the film’s most compelling relationship, the two make moves to land the boys of their recent Instagram search histories.
Sierra Burgess is a modern-day retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac but the millennial update doesn’t quite land in 2018. It has all the makings of a fresh, progressive teen romcom but, despite a solid effort from all actors involved, lacks the charm necessary to leave any real lasting impression. Which is maybe a good thing.
The problem isn’t the undertone of melancholy that zaps any fun from what could be a nice throwback to John Hughes—Purser is, after all, a perfect Molly Ringwald for modern audiences. Nor is it just the questionable actions of our leading lady, though the romanticism of catfishing and blurred lines of consent are worth noting.
No, the real problem is in the very premise itself; the reinforcement of the idea that the Hot Jock would never fall for Sierra if he knew what she looked like. That she is only worthy of this whirlwind romance when he thinks she is thin and conventionally attractive; that her personality isn’t quite enough.
“The moral of the story is that we should see people for who they are, and Sierra is the winner because Jamey loves her in spite of her appearance. Almost like he has done poor loser Sierra Burgess a favour “
Lindsey Beer’s screenplay is pure in its intention to flip this idea on its head, and Sierra has the building blocks of a character above it all, thrown in the middle of a plot that exists to remind us otherwise.
By the film’s climax, Jamey is telling Sierra, confidently, that she ‘isn’t everyone’s type’, that he ‘wouldn’t have noticed her’ had they met under different circumstances. The moral of the story is that we should see people for who they are, and Sierra is the winner because Jamey loves her in spite of her appearance. Almost like he has done poor loser Sierra Burgess a favour because she is his type— personality wise, anyway.
Not to do a disservice to Purser, who is charming and sincere in the titular role, equally believable in her confidence and vulnerability. In perhaps the most relatable moment of the film, Sierra berates her parents for not understanding what it’s like to be a teen girl and ‘look like this.’ It’s a scene that explains almost entirely why Purser was drawn to the character. Her moments of insecurity are just that- moments, a distinction that is important when we are so conditioned to seeing plus-sized characters always wrestling with self-loathing.
Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty attempted a similar life lesson, that we should look beyond appearance. Schumer’s Renee walked the streets bursting with confidence after a head injury tricks her into seeing a beautiful reflection, but her appearance remains the punchline. Her colleagues are repulsed by her eating habits, strangers are confused by her confidence.
“Maybe it’s time these same girls see stories that don’t minimise their existence to the Loser, the Sidekick, the Punchline, the Girl Only Worthy of Love when She is Invisible; films where they are not devices for lessons in common decency.”
In the same month that Netflix is offering viewers content like Insatiable, a production largely criticised for it’s fat-shaming and poor attempt at body positivity, the fine line between satire and enlightenment is even harder to walk.
Sierra Burgess isn’t all bad, of course. The friendship that develops between Veronica and Sierra is a highlight of Beer’s screenplay; there is no ‘ah ha’ moment, rather a subtle glimpse into Veronica’s life that allows Sierra to understand her cruel exterior. Though we haven’t moved beyond pitting women against each other or making plot points of slut-shaming, it’s (sadly) refreshing that Sierra isn’t coerced into a complete overhaul of her appearance to equal the playing field in their budding friendship or deem her worthy of Veronica’s time. Or Jamey’s, for that matter. This, at least, is a triumph.
And it’s certainly something to be championed, the sense of inclusion felt by girls who have seen themselves represented on screen by way of Purser. But maybe it’s time these same girls see stories that don’t minimise their existence to the Loser, the Sidekick, the Punchline, the Girl Only Worthy of Love when She is Invisible; films where they are not devices for lessons in common decency.
Films where, perhaps, the happy ending isn’t, ‘they loved her in spite of her looks’ but rather, they loved her. Better yet-- she loved herself. Wholly and completely, not in spite of her looks and not because of them, but because she is uniquely herself.
Sierra Burgess Is A Loser is available on Netflix from September 7