Sierra Burgess Is A Loser movie review: Netflix's faltering teen romance is saved by its sweetness

Rohini Nair

Sep,12 2018 17:35:12 IST

2.5/5

Right under 'Available for download', 'Award-winning', 'TV shows', 'Originals' etc, Netflix should start a new category labelled "Noah Centineo". The young actor is having a (well-deserved) moment thanks to his genuine-nice-guy-and-also-dreamy-jock act in the Netflix films To All The Boys I've Loved Before and Sierra Burgess Is A Loser.

If To All The Boys I've Loved Before established Centineo as "The Internet's Boyfriend", then Sierra Burgess Is A Loser capitalises on that reputation. Of course, Centineo isn't the only young star in the film to enjoy considerable pop culture cachet. Shannon Purser, who plays the titular Sierra, inspired the trending #JusticeForBarb movement after appearing in Stranger Things' season one, and is also known for her turn as Ethel Muggs in Riverdale. Kristine Froseth and RJ Cyler round out the Sierra Burgess cast.

Sierra Burgess Is A Loser begins with a glimpse into the life of Sierra (Purser): an ungainly teen with a high IQ and low self-esteem. She's having a little trouble with college applications, despite her near-perfect SAT scores and straight-As, and her days are marred by minor run-ins with popular cheerleader Veronica (Froseth) who "runs" her high school. Support comes in the form of her best friend Dan (RJ Cyler), also a top student, who isn't afraid of calling bullsh*t on Sierra's more dubious ideas.

It's one of Sierra's dubious ideas that forms the mainstay of this story: One evening, Sierra gets a text message from a boy called Jamey (Centineo). After several cutesy exchanges, Sierra realises that Jamey's messages were meant for Veronica. By then, however, she's developed a full-blown crush on Jamey (who aids the process by sending along some shirtless selfies) and puts off telling him about the goof-up.

Poster for Sierra Burgess Is A Loser. Netflix

Poster for Sierra Burgess Is A Loser. Netflix

Meanwhile, she discovers that Veronica has been dumped by her college-going boyfriend for "not being smart enough". Sierra strikes a deal with Veronica — Veronica must keep up the pretense that she's the one chatting with Jamey; in return, Sierra will coach her in Philosophy 101 and other such subjects so that Veronica can discuss them intelligently with her ex-boyfriend, and win him back. But how long can they keep up the deception before Jamey finds out?

So far, so convoluted.

The premise of Sierra Burgess Is A Loser is not new — it's the teen equivalent of Cyrano de Bergerac, the classic tale of love blossoming as a result of mistaken identities. The trope has been seen in a few other movies, including 1996's The Truth About Cats and Dogs (fun fact: with the exception of RJ Cyler, the three other stars of Sierra Burgess were all born after this film's release) and to an extent, in 2004's A Cinderella Story. Two people — Person A being popular and conventionally good-looking, Person B less so — fall in love as they converse through letters (or as in Sierra Burgess, over text messages). Enter Person C, also popular and conventionally good-looking. Person A thinks it's Person C who they've been sharing their innermost thoughts (or shirtless selfies) with, but of course it's Person B, who thinks they're not good-looking enough for Person A. When the truth is revealed to Person A, will they choose outward beauty (Person C) or their true soulmate (Person B)?

It's interesting to note that these movie adaptations of the Cyrano de Bergerac story have made their Cyranos (Person B in the above equation) female. It's truer to reality: women tend to be judged a lot more than men for their physical attributes, and struggle greatly with unrealistic standards of beauty. Another reason could be that the duplicity that the Cyrano story perpetrates on Person A seems somewhat more palatable today, if it is a man rather than a woman who had been conned.

Even with this gender switch, Sierra Burgess has faced flak for its superficial depiction of catfishing (the act of misrepresenting oneself online, to entrap/swindle a romantic partner); the film presents an illegal act as sweet serendipity, an action that has few real consequences for the deceiver, while downplaying the hurt and confusion of the one deceived. [SPOILER AHEAD] One particularly problematic scene has Jamey believing he's kissing Veronica, when Sierra has taken her place in front of him. It's a tone-deaf move amid the ongoing conversation around consent [SPOILER ENDS].

It also detracts from the "it's how you are on the inside that counts" message the movie is trying to impart. Which is a pity because what these characters are on the inside is pretty interesting. Veronica isn't your typical "mean girl", Sierra struggles with her looks more than she lets on, and Jamey's a sweetheart through-and-through. And beyond the duplicitous (and oft straining at credulity) romance the girls are carrying on with Jamie, they have a warm friendship that is wonderful to see unfold across the film's breezy one hour and 45 minutes' runtime.

Shannon Purser and Kristine Froseth are both quite lovely in their respective roles, while RJ Cyler is fun in a somewhat token-ish part. But let's be honest — Noah Centineo is the one we're watching. Jamey is a repeat of his Peter Kavinsky character from To All The Boys I've Loved Before (if Peter Kavinsky had a penchant for taking shirtless selfies) — perfect older brother and friend, a dreamboat who's also sensitive, a super athlete who's also an adorable goofball. You don't get to see quite enough of him in Sierra Burgess, although he gets one of the most articulate dialogues in the film, when he compares a football game to poetry, in a conversation with Veronica/Sierra.

Whether Centineo will prove his versatility with different kinds of roles remains to be seen. For now though, he's the real winner of Sierra Burgess is A Loser.

Sierra Burgess is A Loser is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:

Updated Date: Sep 12, 2018 17:35 PM