Loyalists and skeptics of the Netflix’s rom-com revival may have been lured into false security with the charming To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The newly-released Sierra Burgess is a Loser seems like a natural follow up and an easy fit on the streaming service; it stars To All the Boys‘ Noah Centineo and Stranger Things‘ Shannon Purser, and it deals with everyday issues that teenagers face in 2018.
It’s disappointing, then, that the film falls just so flat.
At the heart of Sierra Burgess‘ myriad issues is the central protagonist (Purser). When we meet Sierra, she’s a well-mannered girl who has a good relationship with her parents (Back to the Future‘s Lea Thompson and Ferris Bueller‘s Alan Ruck, a real dose of nostalgia). She knows she’s not the prototypical popular girl, but seems perfectly content with her high school social status, which includes her best friend (RJ Cyler, a runaway scene-stealer who deserves his own multi-picture Netflix deal ASAP), band practice, and crushing it in English class. She even owns said prototypical popular girl, Veronica (Kristine Froseth) when she tries and fails to insult Sierra.
That’s why it’s so difficult to digest when Sierra starts catfishing cute football player Jamey (Centineo) after Veronica dished out her number to be cruel. Sierra doesn’t know Jamey. Even Cyrano de Bergerac – the film’s loose basis – knew Roxane. Jamey isn’t some longstanding crush that Sierra that we should invest in; she sees one cute picture and decides to like him, simply because she knows he likes whoever he thinks he’s texting. It looks like something she does to pass the time, which is borderline sociopathic.
When Sierra digs into the catfishing, she chooses a troubling path, but unlike the protagonists and even antiheroes who precede her, she has no ostensible motivation to do so. The growing lie does lead her closer to Veronica and form an unlikely friendship between the two, but at Jamey’s expense. It’s a gender-bent She’s All That and we’re supposed to feel only for the villains.
And that really stings.
In a social climate where women struggle to be understood and have their feelings and experiences validated, Sierra Burgess is not a great look. Sierra kisses Jamey when his eyes are closed; he thinks he’s kissing Veronica, so there’s no consent. At best, this disconcerting scene may help viewers understand boundaries. At its worst, Sierra and Veronica look highly manipulative and could be used to discredit a whole gender and the entire demographic of teenage girls.
A relatively minor gripe but still a hit to the film’s overall quality is the actual conversations between Sierra and Jamey. On the phone, she asks him question after question – a classic first date strategy, but not the organically flowing conversation of two people with apparently unignorable chemistry. She asks him about his favorite x, y, and z; she laughs when he says he was a fat baby as if she has never heard something so ludicrous and all babies are not adorable little chubsters.
The same problem plagues their text relationship; ostensibly, the entire basis of Sierra and Jamey’s connection is that they like sending each other animal pictures. Cute, but not enough! Telling a story about digital relationships requires some base knowledge about them, and if the writers had any, they didn’t use it.
The film also opts to not create a visual representation of the text messages, so we have to read a phone-screen-on-film over characters’ shoulders. Repeatedly.
And let’s not forget the part where Sierra pretends to be deaf and mute to avoid speaking to Jamey, lest he recognize her voice from their daily phone calls. Her doing this is, objectively, very bad. Doing this while he is out with his deaf brother who she probably knew about is actually plain fucking awful. She also hacks Veronica’s Instagram and cyberbullies her because Veronica kissed Jamey – you know, the boy who thinks he’s dating her. It’s a moment of petty vengeance but an inordinately severe response (see above note about sociopathy!).
In some moments, through lighting or music, the film hints at a deeper darkness (not least because we last saw Purser with a slug crawling out of her mouth and Froseth looks like she definitely auditioned for Amma in Sharp Objects), but those minor tone shifts never pay off. The horror movie version of Sierra Burgess looks way more compelling, enhancing the moral fall of our supposed heroine and forcing her to face the consequences of her actions with more severity than this movie’s tepid climax.
Sierra Burgess is a reminder of all the work that teen movies and shows still have to do, but like before it, this movie thinks it’s accomplished something. In reality, it’s created more work for the next film that follows, which will have to earn the trust and respect of an audience – and, ideally, also contain some moreconvincing texting.
Sierra Burgess is a Loser is now streaming on Netflix (or you could just rewatch To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before).