When it comes to teen girls, there’s a lot of talk around self-esteem, mean girls, and self-respect. Boys play a role, but much like in Sierra Burgess is a Loser, they are truly secondary. The latest Netflix original romantic comedy showcases the reality that there is more than one way to be mean, confident, or even bullied. Both women leads are all three, but in very different areas of their lives. Veronica is introduced as a one-dimensional mean girl but Kristen Froseth brings her skillfully to life, and in the end it’s Shannon Purser’s titular loser Sierra who has more growing to do.
Due to some mean girl mischief, Jamey (a still-swoon worthy Noah Centineo of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before), a cute football player from the high school across town gets outcast Sierra Burgess’s phone number and mistakenly thinks he’s texting mean girl Veronica. In this multilayered tech-savvy take on Cyrano de Bergerac, Sierra falls for Jamey quickly and he for her, and Sierra decides to keep up the charade out of fear that she’ll lose him. Sierra quickly ropes Veronica into her scheme in exchange for tutoring, so that Veronica can “act smart” to woo back her college aged ex. It doesn’t take long for the lies to start building up and for everyone to start questioning who they really are and who they’re meant to be with.
Sierra Burgess gets a lot of mileage out of the looks of its characters, spending its intro on a kind but all-too-aware look at how Sierra’s peers must view her body and how she sees herself. The use of Chrissy Metz in this film is a bit of a curveball, an unsubtle demonstration of how women of size can be the cruel gatekeepers of acceptability. If there’s one high level thing this movie is doing right, it’s charting the many complex factors of self-esteem.
When Sierra Burgess is a Loser was pitched, the clear selling point was internet darling Shannon Purser, AKA Barb from Stranger Things. No one could have known that the summer of 2018 would bring back the romcom and that To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before would vault the leading man of both movies, Noah Centineo, into a committed relationship as the internet’s boyfriend. It’s hard to watch the decent Sierra Burgess without this in mind, and without comparing it to the rightfully viral To All the Boys.
To that end, Noah Centineo’s Jamey is a more introspective love interest than Peter Kovinsky, but much less of a co-lead. He’s not in on Sierra’s secret, and the nature of the plot means they can’t share screen time for much of the movie. Still, the phone call montages are sweet and stir that familiar ache of butterflies and new love that a movie like this is meant to.
While there is a certain glow from the budding, albeit deceitful, relationship between Sierra and Jamey, the real story beats in this romantic comedy are constructed around Sierra’s relationship with Veronica. Initially enemies, like any good couple, they spar their way through a forced, mutually beneficial pairing, getting closer as they scheme. Much of the humanizing is on Veronica’s behalf, as we meet her mother, played by an emotionally unrecognizable Chrissy Metz (This is Us) and learn more about her homelife. Watching the girls’ friendship genuinely grow is a genuine pleasure. Both young women make each other stronger, better people, instilling different kinds of confidence and self-respect. In the end the grand gesture comes not from Jamey, who merely shows up at the right moment, but from Veronica, who engineers those moments.
A better title for this movie might be Sierra Burgess is a Liar. As the lies stack up and become increasingly hurtful and downright unnecessary, it gets harder to see the protagonist as the kind, put-upon heroine, excluded out of mere cruelty. Instead, she pulls a full-on Cady Heron and becomes a mean girl herself, doing senselessly cruel things to practically everyone in her life, including her best friend (an underused RJ Cyler, I’m Dying Up Here), love interest, and new friend. Viewers might find this a tough pill to swallow, and it’s this element, more than any of the other story issues, that keep it from threatening the dominance of To All The Boys.
Unlike in Mean Girls, reckoning with one’s own inner bully is not a theme of this movie, and Sierra is largely let off the hook for her actions. She spends some time on ice and makes a decent apology to Jamey, which also showcases Shannon Purser’s lovely singing ability. Much like Sierra Burgess herself, the movie seems inclined to consider Sierra’s acting out as a result of the prior bullying, instead of holding her accountable for her actions and taking to heart its own message about the trials everyone goes through, even if they’re not always visible.
Having teen comedy royalty like Lea Thompson and Alan Ruck as Sierra’s parents is fun but doesn’t add as much to the mix as it could. Thompson’s self-help author doesn’t get enough screen time to go beyond the outline of a gorgeous power mom who pillages her kid’s life for pop psychology book sales, oddly similar ground she trod with depth and real character growth on Switched at Birth. Ruck fairs better since his literary genius has more in common with Sierra, but it still felt like some of the other elements could have been pared back to give more time to these relationships.
Sierra Burgess has a few elements strongly in its favor, like performances from the leads, a charming song, and the genuine warmth between Sierra and the other two leads amidst all the hijinks. It has some interesting things to say about what it means to be a high schooler right now, which is more than can be said for most teen fare. Ultimately, though, the script sidelines promising roles from Sierra’s parents and her best friend and pushes well past what the premise initially asks the audience to forgive into extreme territory. It’s not a bad diversion if you’re so inclined, but when the story of the Great Summer of Romcoms is told, Sierra Burgess is a Loser will be but a mere mention, notable for its timing and Centineo’s presence and little else.