Director: Ian Samuels
Screenplay: Lindsey Beer
Starring: Shannon Purser, Kristine Froseth, RJ Cyler, Noah Centineo, Loretta Devine, Lea Thompson, Alan Ruck
Runtime: 105 Minutes
Sierra Burgess Is a Loser is the type of bad film where it only starts to become apparent just how poorly misjudged the entire effort is until you're too far in to turn back. For all its dressing up as a twee little "be yourself" high school drama aching for the spirit of a 1980s John Hughes picture (which its synth-heavy score heavily invokes what it thinks it is), it's the grotesquely out of touch social drama that unfolds that makes it certainly feel like a dinosaur in the modern age.
Very loosely based on the 19th century play Cyrano de Bergerac, and carrying with it that same air of cultured intellectualism hiding its thoroughly rotten core, the narrative sees "loser" lead Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser) fall into a case of mistaken identity when school bitch Veronica (Kristine Froseth) gives Sierra's tutoring number to the handsome Jamey (Noah Centineo) instead of her own.
What follows is an insidiously mounted exercise in deception, as Sierra gets romantically infatuated with the guy who thinks she's somebody else through text and phone calls, and then Skype calls wherein Veronica is present mouthing the words Sierra speaks over a poor video connection - and then the actual dating starts.
Why is Veronica involved? Well, Veronica wants to win over her crush who is a college student by pretending to be smarter than she actually is. So she recruits Sierra as a tutor to fix this while they form a friendship, and Veronica atones for wronging Sierra by continuing to enable her efforts to deceive Jamey.
As cute as the film might think that it sounds, painting Sierra as someone so insecure about her looks and status that she pretends to be somebody more traditionally attractive until reaching a level of personal acceptance, it's completely undercut by the creepy 'catfishing' narrative hook that spirals further to deplorable levels.
Especially considering that Jamey seems like an okay person undeserving of such personal betrayal. Once again being played by Noah Centineo, who made a similarly likeable jock character of the male lead in To All the Boys I've Loved Before little over a month ago.
But as if that wasn't enough, it gets worse. Sierra is presented to us as the likeable protagonist deserving of audience sympathies, and yet time and time again proves herself to be nothing short of a sociopath in the way that she approaches Jamey and ultimately ends up manipulating Veronica.
Which is sad, because Veronica probably has the most compelling arc of the whole film, with Froseth giving a very strong performance. Marked by an understandably difficult home life and living up to the standards of her incredibly vain mother. All of which is rushed through way to fast in order to get back to Sierra.
All the while Sierra's smugly well-educated parents (played by Alan Ruck and Lea Thompson no less) and background as a maligned star pupil should somehow engineer a Pavlovian response in the audience to garner sympathy that is never evident in any of her actions.
Especially not when it gets to the third act and Sierra appears to undergo an offscreen lobotomy, and overreacts to a misunderstanding that she engineered with Veronica and Jamey and breaks into Veronica's Instagram account to publicly humiliate her via slut-shaming. Not to mention the insensitive asides to jokes at the expense of trans individuals, fat-shaming and even a deaf child who is used as a punchline. Yet, Sierra learns little from this and instead opts to write a twee little song and send it to her friends as an apology before the final scenes.
It's this weird dissonance where it comes to the double standards of high school social dynamics and circles that make the whole thing fall apart, and despite the casting of Shannon Purser in the lead as a means of platforming the actress following her bizarrely impactful turn in Stranger Things, Sierra is a similarly smug stand-in for dogooder audience members that never comes across as likeable or very relatable in spite of its intentions to further represent women who don't look like traditional glamour models in leading female roles.
There have been many misfires on Netflix this year as the service has been swamped with middle of the road pablum and theatre reject productions, but this takes the cake. A film so dense that it can't see just how fundamentally wrong its presentation is, in a desperate effort to gain credibility with a young and naive audience of impressionable youngsters who won't even take on board the ramifications of how much damage "catfishing" can actually cause.