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.
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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.”