Sierra Burgess is a Loser premieres Friday, September 7th on Netflix.
Remaining within the Netflix algorithmic family, Shannon Purser, who gained notoriety for a short role on the first season of Stranger Things that exploded into a quasi-ironic phenomenon, stars in Sierra Burgess Is a Loser – a modern tweaking of Cyrano de Bergerac that’s also kind of Strangers on a Train…and also a nod to ’80s teen comedies?
It’s a lot to absorb and the film is sadly muddled in its approach, but Purser is still able to shine through the jumble and emerge as someone definitely worth paying attention to in the years to come. As the titular Sierra Burgess, Purser channels a wee bit of Stranger Things’ Barb as a smart, unpopular girl at her high school.
And, like Barb, Sierra’s also ostensibly comfortable with who she is. Insults get hurled her way and she remains unfazed. At least on the surface, as who are any of us to actually label any teen as fully self-confident and assured? Bottom line: Sierra is mysteriously fine with her life, her routine, and her loneliness. She has a best friend, Dan (Power Rangers’ RJ Cyler), who’s unabashedly “movie best friend” toward her. Meaning, we come to know nothing about his life other than he’s always there to help her deal with hers.
Sierra Burgess Is a Loser has an earnest, grounded tone and that suits Purser well. Likewise, Sierra’s arch nemesis, Veronica (Kristine Froseth), is also able to feel a bit more real than typical film bullies, though perhaps that’s also because Veronica’s waging a one-sided assault on Sierra while Sierra remains, mostly, unimpressed.
The movie dives into some interesting territory when it comes to ramping up a modern-day version of Cyrano that actually winds up bringing Sierra and Veronica closer together, to the point where they journey from enemies to frenemies to friends. And that should have been the core of the movie. The fact that these two girls, through heightened circumstances that involve helping each other win over the boy they like, become vulnerable in front of each other and allow an unexpected friendship to blossom.
Unfortunately, the story still clumsily winds up being all about “the boy” in the end, even though, given the more grounded nature of the film, this boy should want to have nothing to do with either of them given their elaborate charade that totally violates his consent on multiple levels. Not only does Netflix have a trend of producing half-baked, or two-thirds baked, original movies that don’t feel fully realized and leave you feeling unsatisfied, but a lot of the issues come about in the final act. Everything tends to fall apart and by the time you get to the last five minutes, it all feels rushed and ruined.
Sierra’s adventure begins with a mean-ish prank, with Veronica giving Jamey (The Fosters’ Noah Centineo) Seirra’s phone number when he asks for hers. Sierra, knowing Jamey’s got the wrong person, starts texting him back and the two hit it off. It’s not long before Sierra, now desperate to keep the ruse going for as long as it can run, knowing it’s destined to collapse at some point, offers to help Veronica smarten up to impress a college freshman she’s interested in if Veronica makes physical appearances during her flirtation with Jamey. Again, it’s the Sierra/Veronica friendship that should firmly take the wheel here because it’s hard to not cringe at all the peripheral damage being done via faked FaceTime calls, fake in-person dates, and a faked kiss (yes, Veronica makes Jamey close his eyes so that Sierra can step out from the shadows and kiss him herself).
It’s all surprisingly unsettling, and it makes the ending feel even more wonky because of Jamey and Veronica’s reaction to Sierra doing them wrong. At least there’s an ’80s-style synth score. It’s the part of the movie, that’s already oddly steeped in ’80s nostalgia (Lea Thompson and Alan Ruck even play Sierra’s parents), that feels the most like an ’80s teen romance “let’s wrap this up” wrap-up. And it’s also the moment that makes you wonder why this movie even went the unneeded mile and made this whole thing an ’80s callback. Is it because Purser’s known for Stranger Things and somehow the decision was made to dress up the story up in an ill-fitting giant shoulder-padded ’80s suit? Again, it doesn’t take place in the ’80s.
Centineo does a great job at being the perfect “teen boy,” though it’s a stretch to think he’s a football quarterback who Veronica, given the way she is at the start of the film, has no interest it. They give Jamey two “below his social strata” goofball friends to pal around with so as to make him unappealing to her, but it’s still a reach. In fact, when Veronica does start realizing just how “too good to be true” Jamey is during her fake courtship on behalf of Sierra, things get interesting. Again, this movie touches upon a few unconventional things that it should have embraced more than its decision to play things safe and tie everything up with a rosy ribbon (and a direct Sixteen Candles callback).