'Sierra Burgess Is a Loser' hides a sweet heart in a deceptive romance

Netlfix’s latest romantic comedy is a well-acted, vibrant take on high school identity, but isn’t as successful as a tale of teenage love

Emil Hofileña

10:0:5am September 7, 2018

10:4:6am September 7, 2018

Image courtesy of Netflix

Image courtesy of Netflix

Netflix’s new teen romantic comedy Sierra Burgess Is a Loser isn’t exactly the modern retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac it makes itself out to be. It borrows basic elements from that 19th-century Edmond Rostand play, but it’s more fairy tale than tragic romance.

The movie follows the bookish and unpopular Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser), who one day begins receiving friendly-flirty texts from quarterback Jamey (Noah Centineo). However, Jamey thinks he’s talking to cheerleader Veronica (Kristine Froseth), and Sierra must figure out how to defuse an increasingly complicated situation. Taken as a light, vibrant piece of entertainment, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser succeeds with the help of its charismatic cast, though the emotions it manufactures tend to be unconvincing.

The film is the latest in a growing line of modern romances that are inexplicably in love with the ‘80s aesthetic — filling their frames with soft lighting and neon colors, and pumping their soundtracks full of gratuitous synth-pop. Luckily, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser makes a stronger case for its style. It isn’t trying to be a terribly realistic vision of high school, but its decision to situate so much of its drama around phone screens and chat windows nevertheless taps into an unexpected truth. It reminds us of technology’s capacity for both connection and deception, of how it enables people to distill the best or worst parts of themselves into one curated summary. The film’s dreamlike visuals and bubbly soundtrack only accentuate this sort of escapism that’s become accessible to everybody.

And because this form of communication has become something we’re so intimately familiar with, many filmmakers have struggled to accurately portray it on-screen in ways that are visually interesting and still dramatically hefty.

Image courtesy of Netflix

Image courtesy of Netflix

For this particular project, director Ian Samuels doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but he understands that what makes text exchanges and phone calls so exciting is precisely the amount of distance between both parties. This movie gets more than enough tension out of simply waiting for the other person to talk back, or seeing if those three little dots in the chat box will result in a meaningful response.

Samuels wisely spends a lot of time focusing on his actors’ faces, emphasizing that it’s their responses that matter more than the actual messages.

With that said, one has to admit that we’ve passed the point in this information age when we could simply reduce texting and calling to an idyllic, mysterious act of communicating. There’s a whole lot of responsibility that comes with representing it in media, and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser tends to romanticize its tale of mistaken identity too much for comfort.

This is, to put it bluntly, a movie about catfishing an innocent, well-meaning boy. And chances are that some viewers might not be able to forgive this manipulation, no matter how equally well-meaning the title character is. Of course, the film finds some sort of justification for its actions, but by that point, lines have been crossed and non-consensual kisses have been stolen.

Samuels and editor Andrea Bottigliero try to get away with this by pacing the movie at a breakneck speed, with abrupt cuts and characters leaping from place to place without the proper passage of time. It’s meant to replicate the experience of high school—the sudden shifts in mood and tone, and the illusion that the days are moving too slowly and too quickly at the same time. This keeps the film from ever hitting any boring patches, but it still isn’t enough to distract from the problem at the core of Sierra Burgess Is a Loser. Try as it may to keep us busy with other aspects of Sierra’s life, we’re always aware that her catfishing is going on for longer than it should.

Even when we ignore all this voluntary deception, the different parts of Sierra’s character don’t always add up. We’re told early on that she isn’t just a typical pushover nerd: she shrugs off Veronica’s insults with confidence, has strong belief in herself and her family, and shows no prior desire for affection from the popular boys. Her sudden bouts of insecurity when Jamey enters the picture are relatable, but Sierra Burgess Is a Loser doesn’t establish the sources of her insecurity well enough to be totally convincing. And by the third act, every loose thread rushes to tie into a nice bow. Secondary characters are abandoned, forgiveness becomes a cheap commodity, and our main characters get awkward title cards that spell out their happy endings.

Image courtesy of Netflix

Image courtesy of Netflix

Still, even with all of its strange choices, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser works well when it focuses on its characters as individuals grappling with their own identities. Sierra, Veronica, and Jamey all feel pressured to fit into boxes imposed by their parents and environment (either actively or passively).

As a “legacy student,” Sierra is faced with unfair expectations from her own school. As the oldest daughter of a superficial mom, Veronica is encouraged to be the ditzy popular girl stereotype.

As the star quarterback, Jamey finds his humor and intellectual side repressed. When the movie just settles down and explores these contradictions — while allowing the characters to help each other heal through friendship and companionship — it really comes into its own.

It helps that the movie has a ridiculously likable cast that’s capable of elevating the material. Noah Centineo continues his streak as Hollywood’s next big romantic star — displaying just enough self-consciousness to make his swagger genuinely charming. Kristine Froseth takes what could have been a dull character and makes her fully sympathetic.

RJ Cyler, who plays Sierra’s best friend Dan, emerges as an incredibly funny talent, making even the smallest scenes more energetic. And Shannon Purser is something of a revelation. Her inner strength is effortless and her ability to make quiet moments of contemplation loaded with feeling is extremely impressive. Sierra Burgess Is a Loser might only end up in the middle of the road, but its cast can look forward to very long, very fruitful careers. – Rappler.com