“Sierra Burgess Is a Loser,” Netflix’s latest teen rom-com directed by Ian Samuels, sets out with the purest of intentions. On the surface, its progressive message seems harmless: “Just be you,” the movie’s poster boasts, referring in part to the film’s representational appeal of not having a conventionally attractive titular character (Shannon Purser). The intentions behind this film, as well as its aesthetically interesting visuals, however, are unfortunately all that it has going for it.
The premise of the film is typical high-school rom-com fair, but with a bit of a modern twist: Sierra is an unpopular girl who is tormented for not adhering to high-school beauty standards. In a cruel act of bullying, a mean girl, Veronica (Kristine Froseth), jokingly gives Sierra’s phone number to popular football player Jamey (Noah Centineo). Sierra, pretending to be Veronica, falls for Jamey through the text conversations they begin to have. While catfishing Centineo’s character, Sierra slowly begins to befriend Veronica so that the mean girl can better help convince Jamey that he’s texting Veronica and not Sierra herself.
This film’s fatal flaw is that it really wants you to sympathize with its main character, complete with her harmful behavior. The film frames Sierra’s deceptive catfishing as romantic, quirky and cute. Importantly, though, the film also attempts — unconvincingly — to portray these actions as justifiable because Sierra isn’t what is considered conventionally pretty.
One unintentionally disturbing scene in the film, wherein Sierra and Veronica stage a bait-and-switch fake out so that Jamey can kiss Sierra while thinking he’s kissing Veronica, raises a variety of ethical issues regarding consent. If this weren’t already bad enough, Sierra fakes having a disability around Jamey so that she can avoid speaking to him, so that he won’t be able recognize her voice from their phone conversations.
The film is additionally littered with a variety of transphobic jokes and jabs, not all of which are framed in a negative light (watching this with a couple of friends, we confusedly turned to each other during these “jokes” and asked, “Are we supposed to laugh at this?”).
Because of the dissonance that exists between what the film wants you to feel towards the main character versus what you actually end up feeling towards her, the entire story comes off as completely tone-deaf. It certainly doesn’t help that the script for this movie is plastically cliché, with a constant influx of lines that sound as if they were written by an older person who hasn’t any clue what young people today speak like.
It’s unfortunate that the movie is plagued by these larger social issues, because on a purely aesthetic level, it really does shine. Its soft visual pallet is earthy but eye-catching and reminds me of another Netflix teen rom-com hit from this year, Susan Johnson’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” which also happens to star Noah Centineo as the main love interest. However, in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Centineo gets more of a chance to shine as an actor film than in “Sierra Burgess,” in which the Jamey character doesn’t develop very much at all.
A few scenes that stood out to me because of their visually-intriguing neon lighting even reminded me of some other films that have employed similar lighting to memorable effect, including last year’s “Blade Runner 2049” by master-filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, which won two Oscars for its distinctive style.
However, the movie’s unlovable characters, which it oh-so-desperately wants us to embrace, swiftly stamp out any visual intrigue the film evokes. If you’re looking to quell your cheesy teen rom-com desires, you’re better off looking elsewhere — Greg Berlanti’s “Love Simon” (2018) and Kelly Fremon Craig’s “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016), as well as many others, have done what “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” attempts to do, but much, much better.