Sierra Burgess is a Loser finds its titular character (Shannon Purser) caught in a Cyrano de Bergerac situation after her school’s resident mean girl Veronica (Kristine Froseth) gives Sierra’s phone number to humble football player Jamey (Noah Centineo), claiming it as her own. Jamey, who goes to a different school, starts texting Sierra thinking that she’s Veronica, and Sierra finds herself going with it; at first because the truth is too awkward, but then because the truth is too scary. Once she learns that Veronica’s trying to woo a college dude, Sierra (a regular victim of Veronica’s) comes to her with an offer: tutoring on college-level subjects in exchange for help with keeping the lie going.
A teen romantic comedy that asks you to root for a lead that’s catfishing her love interest can be a tough sell, but Purser’s on home turf here. As Barb on the first season of Stranger Things, she took a character who was kind of a drag on the page and infused her with a tragic soul that propelled her into pop culture iconography and scored her a well-deserved Emmy nomination. It doesn’t hurt that we don’t see a ton of women like her on-screen—tall and full-figured, she’s immediately distinguishable from most actresses her age, which would probably be an advantage in a culture that didn’t promote “thin and small” as the feminine ideal. (A culture, if we’re being real, that’s driven by scumbags who regularly prey on women.) Sierra Burgess has a little bit to say about such a culture, and Purser happens to be a perfect figurehead for its message. She brings a curious, appealing swagger to the lead character, starting the movie by regularly shaking off the vicious barbs that her classmates throw at her while she tries to keep her head down and get into Stanford. She’s fairly confident (in her skills, at least) and lightly funny, easily setting an appealing pace for the film.
Of course, soon after Jamey starts texting Sierra, the armor she’s built up comes clattering down as the two of them fall into an easy, pleasant rapport. Purser’s great at making you see why Sierra keeps this charade up long after any reasonable person would hit the brakes and come clean, but more impressive is how Purser charts Sierra’s gradual breakdown throughout the second half of the movie, brought on by the stress of maintaining her lie. Just about everyone in on this hare-brained scheme knows that it’s a horrible idea. In the script, Sierra’s best friend Dan (RJ Cyler) serves the primary function of constantly reminding Sierra how messed up this is, and it works mostly because Cyler does a similarly great job of giving Dan an appealing personality outside of his nagging, and partly because what Sierra’s doing is really messed up.
The cast comes through for this, even if their characters feel more than a little arch. Veronica’s meanness, in particular, seems unrealistically shallow at first; once the movie gets to dive into her family life, her bitterness starts making sense, and Kristine Froseth begins to light up in turn. Surprisingly, the film’s script, written by Lindsey Beer (who’s currently attached to a number of high-profile properties according to IMDB) starts to put a little more weight on the burgeoning friendship between Sierra and Veronica rather than the burgeoning romance between Sierra and Jamey (not that the romance is ever sidelined). It’s to the film’s benefit; Purser and Froseth are excellent together, and the film’s meditation on self-respect—how we often seem to have it when we don’t, how important it is to learn the difference—feels more honest for it.
It’s not the only interesting decision on display. Director Ian Samuels, making his feature debut, veers away from the typical visual grammar of a teen movie for a more rugged look, with lots of handheld shots and a color palate that tends to favor darks and fluorescent yellows over typical bright colors. He and DP John W. Rutland aren’t shooting this for glamour; they’re trying to capture an unromanticized version of high school life, the way kids like Sierra might see it as opposed to how someone dealing with the pressures of adult life might fondly remember it. The vision is supported by the mostly down-to-earth sets used; there’s a plainness to it that feels refreshing and gives everything a nice sense of verisimilitude.
That verisimilitude works against it sometimes. A couple of key plot beats feel weirdly rushed, particularly Sierra’s first text conversation with Jamey; it’s beyond me why anyone would think they could build the whole foundation of Sierra’s absurd scheme on three text messages and a spoken claim that they texted all night, but at least it makes up ground later on. (The texting sequences, in general, are well done; Samuels foregoes the overlays that have become popular in portraying texting, choosing to communicate incoming texts entirely through shots of the phone. This helps him nail the natural anxiety and uncertainty that comes from having text conversations with someone you really like.) Things eventually get surprisingly brutal in a way that feels wholly earned, but the wrap up from that feels too neat, partly because of that rush. You get a film that tries to present itself as something a little different than your average teen romcom and tries to show some of the heavy emotional consequences of the ill-advised game these kids are playing, but in the end, it can’t really commit. Still, the effort is admirable and very appealing, absolutely worth your time if you’re a fan of teen movies.
Watch the trailer here:
All images courtesy of Netflix
Directed by Ian Samuels
Written by Lindsey Beer
Produced by Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Molly Smith, Rachel Smith
Starring Shannon Purser, Kristine Froseth, RJ Cyler, Noah Centineo
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 106 minutes