“Sierra Burgess is a Loser,” the latest entry in the Netflix Teen Movie Cinematic Universe, is the broody older sister of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
If “To All the Boys” is the girl who listens to Taylor Swift after she wakes up early to curl her hair in the morning, then “Sierra Burgess” is the chick in the back of your English class who reads Sylvia Plath poetry and hates Taylor Swift for no reason.
The movie is not as edgy as it wants to be, but there is still something endearing about “Sierra Burgess.” Its characters text, FaceTime and catfish one another, but it has a hazy, synth pop-punctuated, “Heathers” vibe. “Sierra Burgess” is a thoroughly modern film, but it doesn’t feel like one.
The titular “Loser” (played with subtle but knowing charm by “Stranger Things” alum Shannon Purser) is having a shitty time in high school. Her famous writer father makes her an instant teacher’s pet, but it doesn’t make her any friends, and she’s pushed around by Nike-clad blonde witch Veronica (Kristine Froseth).
Then, of course, she meets a boy — kind of — and her life is turned upside down.
“Sierra Burgess” is loosely based on the 19th-century play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” in which a big-nosed, homely guy feeds a smaller-nosed but unintelligent guy lines to win over a woman named Roxane. A curly-haired, dopey-grinned guy named Jamey (Noah Centineo) is Roxane in this iteration, after he asks for Veronica’s number and she gives him Sierra’s instead.
Sierra strikes a deal with Veronica to help her woo the college guy she’s lusting after, Cyrano-style, because filmdom dictates that the well-dressed cheerleader must be dumb. Veronica hops aboard the catfishing train, in exchange for tutoring sessions. No spoilers, but if you had to read “Cyrano de Bergerac” in AP Lit — or have ever seen a high school movie before — you know how it ends.
“Sierra Burgess” does some things right. Its cast is not a horde of polished 30-year-olds masquerading as high-schoolers (here’s looking at you, ABC Family and The CW). And its cast is excellent; Purser and Froseth both make their monstrous characters deeply empathetic, and Centineo is more charming than he has any right to be. Appearances by Sierra’s parents, played by Alan Ruck and Lea Thompson, are welcome nostalgic snapshots.
It is Sierra and Veronica’s developing friendship that tethers “Sierra Burgess,” not their respective pursuits of Jamey and some floppy-haired, pseudo-intellectual college guy. Female friendship is almost always overshadowed by romance in film (2007’s “Juno” is the only exception that comes to mind).
But there is also a lot wrong with “Sierra Burgess.” It’s reminiscent of 1980s movies like “Sixteen Candles,” but not just in a nostalgic, aesthetically pleasing way. John Hughes got away with cheap discriminatory gags and sex jokes with troubling implications, but 2018 Netflix — which paints itself as the pinnacle of modern progressive entertainment — should know better.
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” this film’s predecessor in the Netflix teen movie canon (or, officially, the streaming service’s “Summer of Love”) was released in August. It also revolves around a twisted dating scheme, but it’s proof that you can have an unproblematic movie without sacrificing wit or quality.
The best thing “To All the Boys” accomplished, I think, was presenting us with a female protagonist who is both intelligent and girly, who is considered a nerd by her friends but who unabashedly reads Harlequin romance novels and regularly dreams up elaborate love-oriented fantasies.
The most egregious thing “Sierra Burgess” does is romanticize the art of catfishing, but what is most frustrating about the film, to me, is that it perpetuates the idea that a woman can be smart or girly, but not both. Sure, Sierra and Veronica really embody the ancient proverb “grow through what you go through,” but the movie is built on that misogynistic stereotype.
Also, just to reiterate: it definitely condones catfishing. Nev and Max would be appalled.