What about Barb? Be more Barb. We are all Barb.
Shannon Purser made quite an impression after she appeared in Stranger Things – playing Nancy’s straight-laced best friend who tried to steer her away from boys and late nights only to get a face full of Demogorgon and a whole lot of memes.
Walking into Sierra Burgess Is A Loser to a synthy dream-pop soundtrack and a suspiciously familiar looking font, it’s easy to think her first proper feature is picking up her story where we left her in Hawkins, but it turns out newbie director Ian Samuels is just doing the whole retro thing. Just like Spider-Man: Homecoming, The End Of The F***ing World, and everything else since Stranger Things, you can’t tell a teen story now without making it look and feel a bit like it was made in the ’80s.
Not that that’s always a bad thing. The warm, fuzzy shadow of John Hughes looms large over anything with a high school in it these days, and Samuels proves here that you can take inspiration from the best without resorting to parody or pastiche. At its best, Sierra Burgess Is A Loser feels almost like the sort of teen romcom Hughes actually might have made in his heyday – never patronising, always big hearted and championing a great performance from a young talent who’s definitely worth watching.
The real inspiration for the film is actually Edmond Rostand’s 1897 comedy of manners, Cyrano De Bergerac – the same story of mixed identity and secretly swapped partners that fuelled a dozen imitators, not least Steve Martin’s 1987 classic, Roxanne.
Purser plays the story’s Bergerac – and the film’s titular “loser” – swapping a big nose for a slightly more subtle form of social leprosy as a dowdy geek. Sierra is smart and funny, but she’s also the sort of girl who leaves toothpaste stains on her face and sets her phone background to a picture of Charles Dickens.
Sure, she’s bullied by the popular kids, but she doesn’t care much, because she knows she’s smarter. Head cheerleader Veronica (Kristine Froseth, soon to be in Apostle) is particularly mean – and she hands out Sierra’s phone number instead of her own when jock Jamey (Noah Centineo) asks, just to get her hopes up. He texts, she replies, and things start getting complicated quickly – especially when Jamey starts sending topless pics, and when Veronica reluctantly asks for Sierra’s help to seem less dumb to her own older crush.
As Bergerac’s crossed-letters and late-night balcony serenades are updated to texts, fake selfies and dubbed FaceTime calls, Sierra Burgess Is A Loser basically becomes a sweeter version of Catfish. It’s a dubious decision to turn a story about the lack of consent into a teen comedy – particularly in the current climate – but Sierra’s doubts and insecurities are given (just) enough sensitivity for it all to not seem creepy. Whether or not the film would work with the genders reversed though, is another question.
Luckily, Purser is likeable enough to paper over the pitfalls. Froseth’s mean-girl and Centineo’s heartthrob come dangerously close to cliché (although the script does try hard to give them depth and direction in the third act), but it’s Purser who carries the film with her nerdy charm and spikey humour. Any time she’s on screen with RJ Cyler (playing his second cool best friend after Me And Earl And The Dying Girl), mum Lea Thompon (upping the 80’s vibe) or dad Alan Ruck (c’mon, Ferris Bueller’s best friend? We get the John Hughes thing already), she’s still the most watchable person in the room by far – and she clearly deserved more than a quick death in the Upside Down.
Not that it all works as well as it could. Mostly sitting on the right side of sap, a lot of the dialogue cloys when it’s not trying to be funny (“I don’t even feel like a jock. I mean, yeah, I like football, but I don’t even like most of the guys on the team…” and “I wonder if a star knows that it shines?”), and the stodgy emo tone starts becoming a drag long before the finale delivers a few mixed millennial messages. At its worst, the film comes off trite, corny and a bit derivative – and if you’ve seen Cyrano De Bergerac, Roxanne or pretty much any girly teen romcom before, you’ll know exactly how it all plays out.
But then there’s nothing really wrong with that. This is a film that’s meant to be watched on a duvet day with a pack of biscuits. A day where you don’t mind wall to wall dream-pop, a lot of nods to better retro movies and a sappy, cutesy, slightly worrying plot that basically has its heart in the right place.
Sierra Burgess Is A Loser desperately wants to be the new Pretty In Pink. It’s not, but you can’t really blame it for trying.