Hello, everyone! How is it that we can live in a world where Netflix can release a beautiful little gem like To All The Boys I Loved Before and then follow it up with some basic derivative trash like Sierra Burgess Is A Loser? Not all teenage rom-coms are created equal, but Sierra Burgess could at least have tried to be original, instead of being a pastiche of every 80s teen film ever made with a script glued together by platitudes and clichés. Over 3 years ago I wrote one of my first blog posts about how teen rom coms like to pit the protagonist, an average “nice” girl, against the villain, who is always beautiful, popular, and bitchy. Sierra pretends like it’s repurposing the trope, but in the end it does the exact same thing as all the other films. The nice girl gets the hot guy, the bitchy popular girl is punished and taken down a peg, and everyone lives happily ever after. Glad to see that nothing has changed.
Synopsis: A teen adaption of Cyrano de Bergerac. Sierra Burgess lives a mild, content existence as an unremarkable high school student until she receives a text from hot jock Jamey, who was intending it for the beautiful queen-bee Veronica. Sierra makes a pact with Veronica: she’ll help make Veronica appear smarter to her college beau Spence if Veronica will keep up the appearance of being interested in Jamey and allow Sierra to keep texting him. Predictable mistaken-identity hijinks ensue.
My take: I hated this movie. There’s not an ounce of originality and it relies on exhaustingly old-fashioned tropes that don’t even make sense for a modern teen film. Let’s start with the surface elements. Aesthetically, it’s a copy-paste of 1000 other sepia-tinted indie rom-coms. Sierra drives a mustard yellow VW bug and wears only pastels. The film starts with Sierra getting out of the shower and staring at herself in the mirror. It ends with fucking freeze-frames and two sentence epilogues. I’ve bored myself just describing the film’s musty aesthetic. Compare that to Netflix’s other vintage-inspired teen film, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, which glows with a gorgeous use of light and color. It, too, emphasizes pastels and retro color schemes, but ACTUALLY LOOKS GOOD! If films with yellow/green filter color schemes could all go die, that’d be great.
Sierra makes further overtures to “cool” indie films by casting 80s teen stars Alan Ruck (Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and Lea Thompson (Lorraine from Back To The Future), as Sierra’s parents. While this is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek nod to the 80s teen films that Sierra imitates, it comes off as a lame attempt to force nostalgia into the film, made even worse by the fact that Sierra’s parents are horrible parental stereotypes. Lea Thompson is a self-esteem guru whose ONLY purpose is to shout stupid mottoes at Sierra and Alan Ruck is a renowned writer who literally, I do not jest, speaks to her only in literature quotes, because as we all know, writers speak prose, not English.
Sierra is more of a cipher than her “quirky” family. We know she wants to get into Stanford, but we don’t know why, we know she wants to “stand out,” and we know that she likes to sing and is “smart.” Besides that, she’s not a character that you can really relate to. It could be because Shannon Purser fails to bring Sierra to life. I never really understood all the “Barb from Stranger Things” hype and I don’t think Shannon Purser is an able or expressive actress. Throughout the film she wears a smug, blank-eyed expression, almost like she’s sleepwalking. Her “comedic” lines aren’t funny and her emotional moments aren’t believable. It’s a shame that she’s outshone by the supporting characters, especially as the film is supposed to be about Sierra gaining confidence and taking center stage.
My main problem is that the film sets Sierra up as the protagonist of the film, while making Veronica her antagonist. Veronica was perhaps the best written character in the film. She starts out as a standard popular bitch, then as Sierra takes time to get to know her better, we learn that she’s dealing with a terrible home life, including an emotionally abusive mother and an absent father. Her sisters call her “Moronica” and she’s struggling to be taken seriously by boys who only value her for her beauty. Compared to Veronica, Sierra has it incredibly easy. Her parents are supportive, she lives in a beautiful house (while Veronica’s family seems to be far less comfortable), and her teachers constantly praise her for her intelligence. Yes, Veronica is a bitch to Sierra, but Sierra is perfectly capable of standing up for herself. She hardly seems bothered by Veronica’s taunts, as she’s bolstered by a healthy self-esteem and a happy home life .
Yet it’s Sierra’s coming-of-age story that we’re watching, not Veronica’s. We’re supposed to hate Veronica for her beauty and devalue her intelligence, while we’re supposed to look beyond Sierra’s exterior and value her inner goodness. But we shouldn’t be comparing the two in the first place. Sierra Burgess is not a story about two women fighting over the same man. Veronica doesn’t even want Jamey, and she constantly tries to support Sierra, giving up her time and energy to go out on fake dates with Jamey, sending him photos, etc. She introduces Sierra to her friends and takes her to parties. She confides in Sierra almost immediately, her “mean girl” persona slipping away as soon as Sierra shows any meaningful interest in her. In a way, Sierra pimps out Veronica for her looks so that she can enjoy Jamey’s affection, while Veronica gets no benefit and is rejected from the boy that she was trying to attract.
By showing a kinder side to Veronica, the film acts like it’s reinventing the “mean girl vs. good girl” trope, while actually reinforcing it. The most essential part of that trope is that the “mean girl” gets punished for her misdeeds. Veronica’s entire plot is punishment. She’s dumped and humiliated by the boy she likes, then humiliated and slut-shamed in front of the whole school when Sierra posts a picture of her drunkenly kissing that boy on her Instagram. She loses her friends and becomes something of a pariah. And while at the end of the film she seems to be happier, her “reward” is a new-found understanding that she used to be a mean bitchy slut and now she’s not because Sierra showed her how to be a good person. An inspiring lesson!
Meanwhile Sierra gets to deceive and lie her way into a wonderful relationship with Jamey and admission to Stanford! Yay! You could argue that her relationship with Jamey is justified because even though Sierra lied to Jamey about her identity, she was the one he fell for, not Veronica. And to that I say, how would you feel if you fell in love with someone, talked to them for hours on the phone, skyped with them, and even kissed them, and then found out that they had manipulated you that entire time into being attracted to a manufactured version of themselves that didn’t exist? And also that the person you thought you had kissed was someone entirely different, who technically kissed you under false pretenses and without your consent? I think you’d feel a bit differently.
It would be one thing if Sierra actually had to deal with the consequences of her actions, but she doesn’t. She gets everything she wants! A relationship with Jamey, acceptance to Stanford for her shitty angsty white girl song, and love and forgiveness from Veronica and her friend Dan, whom she abandoned. Even when she’s confronted by Jamey for her wrongdoings, she excuses her actions by saying:
I’m sorry. But do you ever feel like the world is conspiring against you? To tell you that you’re not good enough?
And then Jamey says he understands her motivations! What the even fuck, film? Sierra has no fucking reasons to complain in her own life. She has a loving family, a sheltered existence, a great friend. The only challenge she faces is the fact that maybe, just maybe, she may not be the exceptional special snowflake she thinks she is who is destined for Stanford. That sucks, but that’s life. Veronica’s not going to Stanford and you don’t see her pulling this shit. She at least has a character arc and changes for the better. Sierra doesn’t.
The film teaches us that it’s okay to lie to people and use them as long as you feel like you’ve been mistreated. It also teaches us that it’s okay to turn someone like Jamey into an object because you like him. Despite the fact that he’s not interested in you, and despite the fact that you had to lie to him in every way, you deserve him because you’re the smart one and the funny one. Can you imagine if this movie had been made with a male protagonist instead of a female one? They would have been ridiculed and dismissed as a typical Nice Guy™ who thinks he’s owed the love of his object of affection just because he’s nice to her. But since Sierra is the “nice” protagonist and we’re supposed to be rooting for her, she’s portrayed as sympathetic instead of predatory.
Sierra Burgess is supposed to be uplifting. Its value is predicated on the idea of an unconventional protagonist (i.e one who is overweight) winning the love of a conventionally attractive boy. But it shoots itself in the foot by making Sierra into a smug selfish liar. Why did she have to be such a jerk to gain the upper hand? Why did Veronica have to suffer from the bitchy mean girl trope? And why did Jamey have to be characterized as a doofy sycophant who falls for the girl who dupes him? This film squanders all of its potential without an ounce of self-awareness. Even the title becomes ironic. Yeah, Sierra Burgess is a loser, not because she’s overweight, but because she’s mean. Until teen movies stop pitting girls against girls, I’m over it.