Director: Ian Samuels
Cast: Shannon Purser, Kristine Froseth, RJ Cyler, Noah Centineo
Watch Sierra Burgess Is a Loser online in the UK: Netflix UK
“Sierra Burgess is a loser. And only losers hang out with losers.” That’s the verdict delivered by one of the mean girls at Sierra Burgess’ high school, and it’s a verdict that the comedy spends the next 100 minutes predictably yet charmingly pulling apart.
The film introduces us to Sierra (Shannon Purser), a smart student who is already planning her path to Stanford. Before she can graduate, though, she has to get through the rest of school, where she’s terminally unpopular and bullied due to her unconventional appearance and academic achievements. When attractive jock Jamey (Noah Centineo) asks for cheerleader Veronica’s (Kristine Froseth) number, then, the Regina King wannabe comes up with a nasty plan: take the phone number from Sierra’s tutoring advert on the notice beard and give that to him instead. A mistaken identity flirtation ensues, as the pair chat and Sierra tries to pretend to be someone else to keep her suitor interested.
Before you can say “Cyrano de Bergerac in high school”, Netflix’s film is already racing through the algorithmic plot points dictated by the rom-com genre: there’s the scene-stealing best friend Dan (RJ Cyler), who sassily questions her catfishing; the well-meaning, supportive parents that made Easy A such a pleasure; the token scenes at a party and some hijinks involving the high school marching band.
Most formulaic of all is possibly the most fortuitously unplanned thing about the whole project: the pairing of Shannon Purser and Noah Centineo. One the breakout phenomenon of Stranger Things, the other the swooning heartthrob of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, their partnership is the kind of match that could make them the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks of Netflix. Purser is magnificently sincere as Sierra, already determined to love herself as she is but still struggling with how difficult that can be in practice, while Centineo is readymade for internet stardom, able to juggle his sportsman looks with a vulnerability that’s disarmingly convincing.
But the thing that makes Sierra Burgess Is a Loser a success is that the movie isn’t really about them at all. The real relationship at the movie’s heart is the one between Sierra and Veronica. In order to maintain her deception, the enemies make a deal: Sierra tutors Veronica to make her smart (to impress a more scurrilous, older boy), while Veronica puts in some Facetime to sell the ruse.
The movie’s main weakness is attempting to stretch out that quest for most of its runtime: in the age of Snapchat and Instagram, the idea that two teenagers would interact primarily via text is hard to swallow to such a degree, coming across more like the convenient plot device required. It also gets dangerously close to becoming creepy, no matter how much Dan calls out Sierra for her dubious behaviour – a final act moment of cruelty against Veronica feels a little too harsh for a redemption arc.
But Lindsey Beer’s script (the first in an impressive run of high-profile titles) overcomes those doubts by doubling down on the blossoming friendship between Veronica and Sierra. Kristine Froseth brings depth to the initially shallow mean girl, even if the message of substance mattering more than surface is one that’s been said many times before, while Purser’s growing sympathy for her nemesis makes their increasing intimacy entirely believable – and the shocked reaction from their classmates at their apparent intimacy amusingly misplaced.
That overriding theme of solidarity and support helps to make Sierra Burgess Is a Loser stand alongside the other Netflix rom-coms that have breathed fresh life into familiar formulae this summer. While To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before embraced its protagonist’s fantastical romantic goals, it’s telling that this high-school comedy ends not with a closing shot of a kiss, but a freeze-frame of two new friends enjoying each other’s company.
Sierra Burgess Is a Loser is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.