by Deborah Krieger
Directed by Ian Samuels Starring Shannon Purser, Kristine Froseth, RJ Cyler MPAA rating:PG-13 for sexual references, language, teen partying and thematic material
There’s a reason that one of the best 30 Rock episodes is “Reunion,” where Liz Lemon attends her high school reunion and learns that, rather than the hopeless nerd she believed herself to be, she was actually a cruel bully. She was isolated not because she wasn’t cool enough, but because she actively alienated everyone around her. It’s a gut punch and it’s accurate: when you’re in high school, a combination of myopia and self-pity makes you think you’re the victim of every interaction that doesn’t go your own way, the sympathetic protagonist surrounded by jerks who just don’t understand you. In Sierra Burgess is a Loser, we get to see this self-mythologizing shattered in a much more timely and resounding way, decades before the invites for the reunion get mailed out. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily a lesson that’s borne out in Netflix’s update of Cyrano de Bergerac, here recast as an ultimately unpleasant tale of high school mistaken identities and drawn-out catfishing. Despite an honest, tender lead performance from Shannon Purser, too many elements of Sierra Burgess leave such an unpleasant taste in the mouth. “Do you ever feel sometimes like the world is conspiring against you?” Sierra asks in one key scene. No, but the writing and tone in this film certainly have, because you manage to end your story feeling like you’re still a victim of anything other than your own selfishness.
Sierra Burgess (admittedly a clever way to adapt the name “Cyrano de Bergerac” into something that sounds natural in 2018) is the classic nerdy outcast, flanked by her best friend Dan (RJ Cyler), who never once ascends beyond the played-out trope of the Black Best Friend. How do we know she’s smart? Because she can recognize the famous literary quotations her author father (Alan Ruck) throws at her instead of actually talking to her—a lazy shorthand if there ever was one. (Sierra’s mother, a motivational speaker played by Lea Thompson, has maybe ten lines total and exists to be an example of a petite, pretty woman Sierra envies.) Oh, and Sierra also has read Plato and Socrates and Nietzsche. While her college application resume is a bit thin, she’s beloved by her English teacher (Loretta Devine), supposed to be a chip off the ol’ block even though we never see evidence of her writing ability until the climax of the film. Sierra’s life is made miserable by Veronica (Kristine Froseth) and her posse of photogenic popular girls whose insults are basically limited to transphobic jokes about Sierra’s appearance. (Seriously, why so many stupid trans jokes? Is this what the kids are talking about these days? Half of these jokes could have been made by Chandler Bing. I shudder to envision how trans kids hoping for a cute feel-good movie in the vein of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before will feel when they hear the multiple jokes implying Sierra is or was a man sprinkled like so many tiny cuts over the movie’s runtime.)
We get the setup. Sierra is meant to be too smart for the other kids in her school (even though a student who performs her assigned poem as slam poetry seems like someone Sierra would want to befriend over a common interest), married to the idea of herself as persecuted and yet so fundamentally and intellectually above it all that she doesn’t see how her own behavior harms other people. So when Jamey, a cute jock at a rival school (Noah Centineo) is passed her number by Veronica as a prank on both of them, and Jamey begins to text her, thinking Sierra is Veronica, Sierra takes a really, really long time—waiting until her actions go from immature to downright manipulative—to come clean about it. And she manages to rope Veronica into playing along by offering to tutor Veronica in the aforementioned classics so that the popular princess can keep the interest of her college-aged boyfriend.
The development of Sierra and Jamey’s relationship—such that it is—frankly doesn’t work the way the film wants it to, or thinks it does in the end. Catfishing is wrong, period, and amounts to a gross violation of poor Jamey’s consent. The use of a bad FaceTime connection is admittedly a crafty way to hide the fact that you’re mouthing someone else’s words, because everyone knows that FaceTime connections lag. And Shannon Purser definitely sells the internal glee and glow of having that kind of secret crush. Before her first phone call with Jamey, Sierra puts the phone beside her on the bed and looks up dreamily, nervously, clearly trying to pretend for a moment that the cute boy about to call her is doing so knowingly, that she’s the one he wants. (The weirdness of barely making you squint to see their text conversations on their cell phone screens, when multiple projects have developed cinematic tools to show these conversations; Jamey is supposed to fall for Sierra over text because she’s witty and hilarious, and we should be able to see those conversations.) For the sake of Noah Centineo’s career, it’s a good thing we fell in love with him as Peter Kavinsky, because while Jamey has an endearing, anxiety-provoking moment of insecurity when he sends “Veronica” a shirtless selfie, he’s kind of flat as a character. (Those apparently embarrassing ceiling stars are a good return on investment, though; I’ve had them on my childhood bedroom for nearly twenty years now and they still work.)
However, the developing friendship between Sierra and former nemesis Veronica is where Sierra Burgess shows necessary wit and heart, although the movie can’t resist turning Veronica’s troubled home life into yet another sour punchline: ha, Veronica is pretty but her mother (Chrissy Metz) is fat, and is obsessed with her daughters being beautiful! Purser and Froseth do great, vulnerable work together; a scene set to Betty Who’s “The Other Side,” where Veronica hears Sierra’s singing voice for the first time, is affecting and almost romantic. (The soundtrack for this movie is one of its stronger points). The movie seems to know somewhere deep down that this relationship is the most important one, because the last few shots of the movie at the formal dance are not of Sierra dancing in the arms of Jamey (who forgives her in about two seconds, off-screen), but meaningful, soft-eyed glances and a lingering hug between Sierra and Veronica, signaling that everything is okay now.
Lest you think I’m being overly harsh on a small, harmless teen movie: look, okay, I get what it’s like to be surrounded by prettier girls who seem to have it all, who seem to be more beautiful and all-around more lovable than you. I danced ballet from age three until I graduated high school, and spent many nights crying (and, later, doing endless crunches before bed) because I hated how I looked compared to my fellow dancers. But I also was a pill in middle and high school, I’m sure, in my own myopic, self-centered way, and I’m sure I made people feel small and less than important, because that’s what teenagers do. Yet Sierra manages to hurt Jamey, hurt Veronica, hurt Dan (though mostly through being a generally mean person and not through anything specific)—and is still rewarded with the boy of her dreams showing up at her door professing his feelings, handing her a sunflower (whose meaning is made clear in the movie) before driving her to the formal dance. It’s not clear that she’s actually grown all that much as a person, or that her and Veronica’s unpleasant kiss-switcheroo (yes, this happens) will have any impact on anyone whatsoever. There are, in the end, so many missed opportunities here. While Sierra castigates her mother for being everything she’s not, there’s a lack of condemnation of her dad’s failure to actually engage with her for most of the movie, because he seems to have taught her that dropping author names and appearing intellectual was the same thing as being genuinely smart. (The less said about Jamey’s Deaf brother and Sierra pretending to be Deaf when she actually meets Jamey, the better.) When there are people making more thoughtful teen movies like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before or Blockers, it takes a more honest movie to compete.