×

Film Review: Netflix’s ‘Sierra Burgess Is a Loser’

Netflix's calculatedly charming '80s nostalgia romantic comedy starring two of its self-created teen sensations is 'Pretty in Pink' meets pretty predictable.

Director:
Ian Samuels
With:
Shannon Purser, Kristine Froseth, RJ Cyler, Noah Centineo, Loretta Devine, Girogia Whigham, Alice Lee, Lea Thompson, Alan Ruck, Mary Pat Gleason.
Release Date:
Sep 7, 2018

1 hour 45 minutes

Teenager Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser) steps out of the shower and gradually comes into view. Strong legs, pink robe, and finally, in the foggy mirror, a face: red hair, freckles, a Molly Ringwald for millennials. Other kids at her high school might sneer, as does the title of Ian Samuels’ cutesy throwback romantic comedy, that “Sierra Burgess is a Loser.” By ’80s standards — clichés that Samuels adheres to with an asterisk — she is. Sierra’s in the marching band and, yes, she’s big-boned. But where Ringwald’s outcast characters in John Hughes’ “Pretty in Pink” and “Sixteen Candles” were lip-bitingly awkward, Sierra looks at her reflection and smiles. “You are a magnificent beast!” she grins, and she nods like she believes it. Though when Sierra heads into the kitchen for breakfast, her upbeat, ego-boosting parents (Hughes alums Alan Ruck of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and Lea Thompson of “Some Kind of Wonderful”) ask if she remembered to “leave her insecurities in the bathroom mirror.”

Sierra Burgess is a Loser” is a slumber-party charmer that wants to satisfy every craving, even when what audiences are hungry for clashes, like pouring a chocolate milkshake over a pepperoni pizza. It’s about a strong, smart girl who stands up for herself and seems comfortable in her own skin. A role model for misfits. And yet, when a cute boy named Jamey (Noah Centineo) who plays football at a different school starts mistakenly sending Sierra late-night texts, mistakenly believing her number belongs to the school’s snotty-but-gorgeous head cheerleader Veronica (Kristine Froseth), Sierra arm-twists Veronica to continue the hoax, in full awareness that if she texted him a real selfie, he’d probably recoil. The film’s got a split personality: one part diva, one part Cyrano de Bergerac, if the big-nosed poet texted his lover a shot of a chimp.

In the 1800s, audiences called that romance. Today, there’s a different word: catfishing. Or, as Sierra’s best friend Dan (RJ Cyler) quips when she momentarily second-guesses her ruse, “Are you a catfish or a can’t fish?” Lindsey Beer’s script takes a deadpan view of the cellphone’s capacity for continual, yet disassociated intimacy. It’s plausible that Sierra could get away with an emoji-only relationship for months, maybe forever. “I was kind of just relying on our generation’s total disregard for human interaction,” she shrugs. Of course, the film has to herd our heroine toward a big, sloppy kiss, every stage of which feels like a gigantic deal. When Jamey suggests they — gasp! — talk on the phone, their thumbs joke: “haha yeah like in olden times.“ Once actually conversing, they’re both so nervous they start self-mockingly quoting “Romeo and Juliet.”

Purser is terrific casting. The memorable actress became an internet sensation after the retro Netflix series “Stranger Things” offed her bit character Barb. She was a throwaway player fans wanted to keep, and Netflix is in the business of giving people exactly what they want. You can see the algorhythmic strings plugging Sierra Burgess into its intended fanbase: It’s Purser with a retro gloss, being paired with the new Tumblr hunk of last month’s Netflix teen rom com hit, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” It feels a bit like being back in the studio era with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney contractually bound in cine-matrimony.

So be it, but the problem when these two adorable forces collide is that the central lie of the cell phone trick makes it tough to root for them as a couple. It’s possible to want Sierra to be loved for who she is, and it’s impossible not to admit that she’s being cruel to Jamey, a great guy who genuinely believes he’s falling in love with Veronica. Centineo plays him so sincerely that Sierra, our underdog heroine, starts to seem psychotic, as though she’s one beat away from boiling someone’s bunny.

The screenplay forgives Sierra faster than the audience might. It needs that ’80s-style climax with the pink dress, the jock with the red car, the synthesizers, and the happy freeze-frame. It needs to pretend that a milkshake-pizza is the perfect meal. Meanwhile, our hearts start to bleed for Veronica, a snob who’s unrelentingly horrid for the film’s first half, surprisingly empathetic in the second, and winds up delivering the film’s mixed message: “To thine own self be true. Duh, unless you suck.”

Film Review: Netflix's 'Sierra Burgess Is a Loser'

Reviewed online, Sept. 1, 2018. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production: A Netflix release of a Black Label Media presentation of a Netflix Original Film, Black Label Media production. Producers: Molly Smith, Rachel Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill. Executive producers: Alexandra Beer, Lindsey Beer, Ellen H. Schwartz, Brian Pitt.

Crew: Director: Ian Samuels. Screenplay: Lindsey Beer. Camera (color): John W. Rutland. Editor: Andrea Bottigliero. Music: Brett McLaughlin, Bram Inscore.

With: Shannon Purser, Kristine Froseth, RJ Cyler, Noah Centineo, Loretta Devine, Girogia Whigham, Alice Lee, Lea Thompson, Alan Ruck, Mary Pat Gleason.

More Film

  • Themba-Bhebhe

    Durban FilmMart’s Themba Bhebhe on Diversity: ‘We Are At a Crossroads’

    DURBAN–A new thematic strand at this year’s Durban FilmMart, Engage @ DFM, offers a series of think tanks and in-depth discussions concerning diversity and de-colonial approaches to and models for filmmaking. To head up the new initiative, the DFM tapped guest curator Themba Bhebhe, who has led the Diversity & Inclusion initiative at the last two editions of [...]

  • Durban Film Festival 2019 / Copyright

    South African Creatives Grapple Over Copyright Amendment Bill

    DURBAN–The South African government is planning to update its four-decade-old copyright legislation, but what that means for filmmakers was up for debate during a contentious and often heated session at the Durban FilmMart this week. While the Copyright Amendment Bill awaits the signature of President Cyril Ramaphosa, industry stakeholders remain divided over how the proposed [...]

  • 'The Lion King' Ruling Box Office

    'The Lion King' Ruling Box Office With Dazzling Debut at $180 Million

    Disney’s “The Lion King” has jolted the North American box office back to life with an opening weekend in the $180 million range, estimates showed Saturday. “The Lion King” will record the second-best opening of 2019 — and could replace “Incredibles 2,” which launched last year with $182.7 million, as the ninth biggest North American [...]

  • 'Tomb Raider' Star Simon Yam in

    'Tomb Raider' Star Simon Yam in Hospital After Stabbing

    Hugely popular Hong Kong actor, Simon Yam was stabbed while on stage Saturday at a presentation in Zhongshan, Guangdong province in southern China. He is in hospital recovering. The incident happened at the opening of a branch of the Beijing Easyhome building materials company, where Yam was a guest. A man was seen rushing on [...]

  • Brazilian President Jair Bolosnaro attends the

    Bolsonaro Threatens Brazil’s Central Film Fund with Censorship or Closure

    In typical shoot-from-the-hip remarks, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has declared that Ancine, Brazil’s powerful state-backed federal film agency, should accept “filters”or face closure. “If it can’t have a filter, we’ll close Ancine, or privatize it,” Bolsonaro added, attacking Ancine, which plows some $300 million a year into Brazil’s film and TV industries, for supporting [...]

  • TSOM-MASK

    Director Sara Gouveia on ‘Looking At Resilience Through Art’

    DURBAN–The Mapiko dance of Mozambique’s indigenous Makonde people was long used as a tool for social commentary. But during the colonial era it became an act of political resistance, prompting the Portuguese to stamp it out during Mozambique’s 10-year war for independence. Decades later, the art has been revived as a celebration of freedom. For [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content