In the last few years teen movies have sought to make its main characters complete while claiming to be coming of age stories leaving no room whatsoever for its characters to manouvere. Sierra Burgess is a Loser doesn’t do this. It acknowledges right off the bat that she isn’t the perfect kid her parents think she is. The film provides a remarkably complete idea of imperfection and the sense of education that living your life brings. The people in this film aren’t the perfect specimens you have come to expect and not only do we know this but the rest of the characters do. There is nothing more human than accepting someones flaws because you care for them and in this regard Sierra Burgess is a perfect glimpse into the naïve mindset of those just starting out.
Sierra Burgess is a loser follows Sierra (Shannon Purser), a sure of herself teenager looking forward to college and starting her real life, not only away from high school but away from the shadow her famous writer father and life coach mother. However when a text message from Jamey (Noah Centineo) meant for mean girl Veronica (Kristine Froseth) is sent to her she falls down a rabbit hole of deceit as she sees a relationship all about her and not the people around her.
Much like my previous review Destination Wedding, Sierra straddles the fence when it comes to likable characters. Not only does Sierra do some pretty appalling things in this film, including a scene where she pretends to have a disability, but other characters make equally disastrous decisions with lasting consequences. The idea that people are held accountable for their actions is an important one and a key theme in the film but it does so through exaggerated yet strangely relatable means. The characters here learn their lessons because people are making sure they get what they did wrong. When Sierra’s best friend Dan (RJ Cyler) over steps his bounds at one point in the film the reactions of those around him teach him to change while never telling him or the audience.
There is genuine growth here and on the flip side people regress to their worst. The film never openly states the insecurities that it’s characters feel but this is a tale all about overcoming the little voice inside your mind and while some are successful, others struggle. While Sierra employs Veronica to essentially catfish Jamey because of her own insecurities regarding image, Veronica combats her own fears of life after high school and her own intelligence.
Releasing at the end of Netflix’s so-called ‘Summer of Love’, Sierra Burgess is probably the least romantic of all its recent outpourings. Despite how much the film wants this relationship between Sierra and Jamey to work and feel important it never really feels like the crux of the story. The relationships that really matter are the ones she maintains with Dan and Veronica with her connection to the latter bringing out not only the best in Sierra but also in the film itself.
The two have a certain chemistry together that makes their scenes crackle and the development of this bizarre yet emotionally stirring friendship gives the film its heart. The journey the two go on to understand themselves is an extremely relevant one and their choices to pretend to be someone else, not only for Jamey but others in their lives emphasises how lost they are. These two pretend subconsciously because their fears push them into playing roles they feel forced into, Veronica as the mean girl cheerleader and Sierra as the easy-going nerd. Over the course of the film, these personas wash away giving way to their problems hiding under the surface and both Purser and Froseth bite into these changes with relish.
The insecurities these teenagers feel are real but never spoken, life isn’t that simple. It’s not the subtlest film at times but its characters have a lived in-depth thanks to a vibrant and self-assured script by Lindsey Beer. However the real surprise considering the content is the comedy as the more shocking moments never lead the story into despair as the quick wit is constantly flying. Be it Dan’s wildly entertaining and self-aware rants or the darkly comic wit of Sierra’s teacher Ms Thompson (A fantastic yet underused Loretta Devine), this is definitely a comedy and a smart one to boot.
Despite all that though its hard not to notice that ironically Sierra suffers from an identity crisis. While Netflix saw this as a romantic comedy to bookend their ‘Summer of Love’ experiment, Beer doesn’t see things their way. She clearly wanted to tell a story about growing up and finding pieces of yourself along the way with the help of your friends. The problem being the plot bases itself around a romance. Don’t get me wrong, Purser and Centineo mesh well together despite spending most of the film apart and they are sufficiently adorable when they are together but their relationship has an unavoidable ick factor that never really goes away despite ‘resolving’ at the end.
The overly simplistic ending of Jamey and Sierra’s story can be overlooked however as Beer has written a story of togetherness and acceptance that is sure to resonate with its viewer. The idea that the mistakes we make bring us together more than the triumphs we had is one rarely mentioned in films and because of the willingness of the cast to go to these darker places I have to say Sierra Burgess is a winner.