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Peter Kavinsky and Barb from Stranger Things can’t salvage Sierra Burgess Is a Loser

Netflix’s latest is a paint-by-numbers teen movie whose cast is better than it needs to be.

Shannon Purser in Sierra Burgess Is a Loser
Shannon Purser in Sierra Burgess Is a Loser.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, Netflix’s latest teen flick, is both very lucky and very unlucky that it came out when it did. This is a movie that will live and die by what it’s compared to.

The central idea of Sierra Burgess is that awkward teen girls who are larger than a size two are worthy of love, and in that sense, the movie is very fortunate indeed that it finds itself coming out just weeks after Insatiable tried and dramatically failed to tell the same story. Comparisons between Sierra Burgess and Insatiable are inevitable, and Sierra’s mopey sincerity has a clear advantage when viewed next to Insatiable’s easy, glib cynicism.

But Sierra Burgess also has the deep misfortune of sharing its distributor (Netflix), its genre (trope-driven teen romance), and its romantic lead (Noah Centineo) with the surprise hit of the summer To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. And next to the sparkle and tenderness of To All the Boys, poor Sierra is a cold and clumsy mess.

Viewed on its own, without comparisons: Sierra Burgess is a paint-by-numbers teen movie whose admirable sincerity fails to make up for the clumsiness of its craftsmanship, and whose compelling teen girl friendship is marred by the creepiness of its love story. It’s a “watch it from your couch on a rainy Sunday when you have nothing better to do because hey, it’s already on Netflix, so the barrier to entry here is pretty low” kind of a movie. It is mostly, more or less, okay.

Sierra Burgess Is a Loser is a Cyrano retelling whose love story falls flat

Sierra Burgess is a Cyrano story, with the titular high schooler Sierra taking on the role of the eloquent but unattractive Cyrano. She’s nicely played by Shannon Purser — developing the sweet awkwardness that she deployed as doomed Barb on Stranger Things into an affecting vulnerability — and she is both fiercely proud of her intellect and wildly ashamed of her supposedly horrific looks. (Let’s all be realistic here and note that Purser, with her shock of Molly Ringwald hair and her giant eyes, is perfectly cute.) She talks the way that smart people talk in not very smart movies, by which I mean almost exclusively in literary quotes that are too on-the-nose.

The Roxane of this Cyrano story whom Sierra woos by proxy is intellectual jock Jamey (Centineo, doing his best Peter Kavinsky longing gaze and working hard to salvage a coherent character arc out of scraps). Jamey strikes up a text message correspondence with Sierra under the belief that she is the bitchy and beautiful head cheerleader, Veronica (a pleasingly frigid Kristine Froseth), and lonely Sierra can’t help but text back. Soon the two are swapping cute animal pictures and having deep conversations about stars and things.

The romance between Jamey and Sierra is theoretically at the heart of this story, but it is rendered with so little specificity that it dies onscreen. To the extent that it works, it works because the actors are committed to the detail work: When Jamey psychs himself up to take a shirtless selfie and then immediately covers his face in his hands as he decides that it’s a terrible idea, or when Sierra curls in on herself and hides under her blankets the first time she talks to Jamey on the phone, Centineo and Purser are so specific in their profound embarrassment that you can feel the full cringe-inducing weight of awkward adolescent infatuation.

But mostly, this movie isn’t interested in the details. The supposedly deep conversations during which we are supposed to watch Jamey and Sierra fall in love are about such profound topics as how they both love sandwiches and what kind of animals they would be. This movie paints its love story in broad, bland strokes, and everything feels more than a little generic as a result, no matter how hard the actors are working.

Things get both much more interesting, and a lot creepier, when the actual Veronica gets involved. Her relationship with Sierra is much more developed and deeply felt than the central romance is — but her presence also makes it very clear that Sierra is straight-up just catfishing Jamey.

Sierra Burgess would be a much better movie if it ditched the boys to focus on the girls

As Sierra Burgess opens, there’s no love lost between Sierra and Veronica, who torments her with cartoonish evil. (“I wonder what it’s like to be a reject,” Veronica sniffs to her hangers-on as she stalks past Sierra, high ponytail swishing.) But they come together for their mutual benefit: The deal is that Sierra will tutor Veronica to make her seem smart enough for her college boyfriend, and in return, Veronica will help Sierra sell her masquerade to Jamey. And as the two girls get philosophical over Plato and gleefully stage lip-synced Skype sessions for Jamey’s benefit, they begin to forge a genuine partners-in-crime bond that is enormously fun to watch.

But there’s a Catch-22 here. The more time we spend watching Sierra and Veronica bond over their elaborate ruses, the more time we’re also spending watching them gaslight poor Jamey. Veronica stands in for Sierra on a date and keeps telling him he’s crazy every time he almost sees Sierra lurking in the shadows; Sierra and Veronica switch off mid-kiss in a moment that seems to be of, uh, dubious consent at best. It’s all just a little bit creepier than it feels like it’s supposed to be.

This creepy feeling makes it that much harder to root for Jamey and Sierra’s supposedly sweet romance. By the movie’s end, I found myself rooting for Sierra Burgess to ditch poor underused and lied-to Jamey entirely and just give itself over to Veronica and Sierra, which is clearly where the movie’s heart lies anyway.

But it doesn’t, of course. Instead, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser rolls its way determinedly through its third-act complication — which I won’t spoil, except to say that the complication is entirely Sierra’s fault and frankly makes it difficult to like her — and continues all the way to Jamey’s inevitable realization that it was Sierra he loved all along. Meanwhile, though Sierra’s able young cast keeps working hard, the screenplay never once puts in the work required to make the audience buy this story. It just sort of trusts that you’ll go with it, because hey, that’s how this kind of story is supposed to end.

So in the end, on its own merits, Sierra Burgess is a mediocre teen movie with a couple of performances that are better than it deserves.

In the context of the show that looms large over it: Sierra Burgess offers us the refreshing option, in this era of Insatiable, of seeing a girl who’s larger than a size two be considered worthy of love. But that would be a much more refreshing option if Sierra Burgess were actually a good movie.

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