Last week I talked about how shit I thought it was when I just decided to review a Netflix film instead of a cinema release. Cut to 7 days later and I’ve got egg on my face. I had every intention of doing something more exciting but things, as WB Yeats warned us, have fallen apart. I won’t got into to boring details but, suffice it to say, it went so wrong that I found myself with very little choice but to watch the new Netflix film starring Barb from Stranger Things. To be honest, I’ve kind of wanted to see it since it was released because I think Shannon Purser is everything. It excited be more that All the Boys I’ve Loved Before ever did so it wasn’t like I was too upset. Just feeling a bit useless.
Sierra Burgess is a Loser is the latest in a seemingly neverending line of romantic comedies intended for a young audience. It is deeply rooted in the 80s teen tradition of John Hughes and features a lead actor that made herself a household name as a side character in a few episodes of Stranger Things. Shannon Purser’s presence in this film has caused it to champion itself as a body positive campaigner. But as we all know, there’s more to embracing body positivity than just letting an actress over a size 10 play the lead.
Shannon Purser plays the titular role of Sierra Burgess, a nerdy High Schooler who is an outsider amongst her fellow students. She is ridiculed by popular cheerleader Sabrina for her looks. On the outside, Sierra is happy with who she is but, inside, she’s lonely. So, after Sabrina gives out Sierra’s number to a random guy, she is quick to fall for him during their texts. Unfortunately, the guy in question, Jamey, thinks he’s flirting with Sabrina, queen of the cheerleaders, not Sierra, member of the marching band.
Realising that she’s getting in above her head, Sierra attempts to get Sabrina on side by helping her get her college boyfriend back. In exchange for tutoring her, Sierra gets Sabrina to Face Time with Jamey in her place. This escalates to dates during which Sierra skulks in the background like a creepy stalker. The two girls become friends but their scheme threatens to tear them apart. Can Sierra find a way to have everything she wants by deceiving everyone she knows?
There was a part of me that really wanted me to like this film. It was trying to do everything right. Plus, I knew going in that it wasn’t going to be original or exciting in terms of narrative. I mean we’re dealing with a classic rom-com trope. It’s The Truth About Cats and Dogs or You’ve Got Make for teenagers in 2018. It’s one of those plots that is super unrealistic but, if done right, can be kind of charming and sweet.
Sierra Burgess isn’t charming or sweet though. It has the benefit of having some main leads who are naturally charming enough to work but they can’t hide how problematic this film is. There are so many moral questions here. Sierra lies to everyone, happily catfishes her crush, blackmails Sabrina, and, worst of all, goes against everything we should be saying about consent. There is one controversial scene in particular that clearly wasn’t thought out. Jamey, on a date with Sabrina, goes in for a kiss. When he closes his eyes, Sierra stands in front of him to take her place. WHAT THE FUCK? Nothing about this is okay.
Sierra Burgess isn’t a loser. No, but she is a dreadful person. There is nothing in this narrative that places her in a positive light. Yet she is allowed to get away with it because she’s not conventionally attractive. It’s insane. If the pretty cheerleader had done the things Sierra has done the film would have ended with her getting her comeuppance. Here, Sierra gets her friends back and the guy she’s been lying to. With no repercussions. She sings one song about being less attractive than Sabrina and it’s all okay? I don’t think so.
I understand that this film was making a point about High School and looking at what’s underneath instead of on the outside. But it does it really badly. Sabrina starts off by being the bitchy cheerleader but, through her friendship with Sierra, she starts to become easier to empathise with. Yet the process of doing that involves her wearing less makeup and less reveling clothes. The message of this isn’t be comfortable with who you are but do the opposite of what they expect. Sierra Burgess was a film with a great deal of potential but it never seems to have faith in its own message. Or at least it sets it aside whenever it needs. Sierra should be the person we all want to be but she isn’t. There are moments when this works but it’s mostly uncomfortable. Not the right message for any young person out there. But I’m an old codger these days.