Sierra Burgess is a Loser
“Although marketed as a lighthearted rom-com with positive messages, Sierra Burgess crosses too many ethical lines to fully enjoy.”
Title: Sierra Burgess is a Loser (2018)
Director: Ian Samuels 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Lindsey Beer 👩🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Sam 👩🏼🇺🇸
Following the success of smash hit To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), Netflix quickly released another teen rom-com: Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, led by Stranger Things’ Shannon Purser as Sierra. The film’s hook involves dropping Purser into the role of an unconventional protagonist—someone who doesn’t fit societal standards of beauty but who still shows confidence in her curvy body type. With love interest Jamey played by Noah Centineo, right on the heels of his big break in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the main characters feel compelling and well-timed. So, why not a 5/5?
Scrolling through audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, it quickly becomes clear that many are bothered by the film’s glorification of catfishing and other problematic devices, such as pretending to be deaf as a joke or the use of transphobic language. But controversies aside, I did enjoy portions of the movie.
Sierra and Veronica’s (Kristine Froseth) unexpected yet endearing friendship proves a highlight and cinematographer John W. Rutland beautifully illustrates emotional tenor throughout the film by contrasting dimly-lit, intimate settings against vibrant and colorful shots for livelier scenes. Add to this a catchy, 80s-style soundtrack, and the film ultimately creates a nostalgic atmosphere full of candy pink clothes and glow-in-the-dark stars on ceilings. It’s sweet and well-intentioned...but comes with major issues, which we’ll discuss below.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
The film centers around women, devoting much of its runtime to the developing friendship between Sierra and Veronica. In fact, their friendship is just as important as the romance between Sierra and Jamey.
Veronica’s initial characterization is painfully ugly, as she targets Sierra with mean-spirited bullying and transphobic language. Thus, I was relieved to see her quickly transition out of this mean cheerleader stereotype early on. Her story arc proved to be surprisingly strong; it was good to see Veronica ditch her original goal of “getting smarter” in order to impress a man and instead to pursue academic endeavors for her own benefit.
The other two main characters besides Sierra are men—Jamey and Sierra’s friend, Dan (RJ Cyler). Despite being a quarterback, Jamey defies jock stereotypes by choosing to hang out with the not-so-popular kids and by displaying a sensitive sweetness that pleasantly rebukes toxic masculinity. However, it’s Sierra’s behavior towards Jamey that actually poses the worst ethical issues, to the point of sinking this grade despite its female leads and female screenwriter, Lindsey Beer.
A quick jaunt through the film’s catfishing premise: Jamey is initially tricked into text messaging with Sierra while believing he is talking to Veronica. The charade is kept up for far too long—in fact, Sierra and Veronica even conspire and set up an in-person date, during which Sierra follows them and observes their interactions and frantically tells Veronica what to say through furtive texts.
At its worst, most uncomfortable moment, Jamey closes his eyes to kiss Veronica and Sierra pops out of hiding to kiss him without his knowledge and consent. It’s disturbing to watch Jamey’s shy smile after he opens his eyes to behold, once more, Veronica, while Sierra grins to herself from underneath a car at their feet.
Were the roles reversed, it’d be unthinkable to have a female protagonist tricked into kissing someone else. It’s troublesome to think that the makers of Sierra Burgess view this scene as romantic just because the recipient of the non-consensual kiss is male.
In another problematic scene, Sierra jealously cyberbullies Veronica, switching from a level-headed and confident teen to a caricature of an insecure “mean girl” herself. The idea makes sense in theory, but it’s poorly executed and makes Sierra a truly distasteful lead, between catfishing, cyberbullying, and pretending to be deaf in the upkeep of her charade.
In short, the film does establish a positive female friendship for a solid chunk of its runtime. However, the mistreatment of the male love interest and inconsistency within Sierra’s own character keep this movie from scoring higher in this category.
Sierra Burgess includes baseline diversity. Specifically, we see the following characters of color:
Sierra’s academic and goofy friend, Dan, and her encouraging English teacher, Ms. Thomson, are both played by Black actors—RJ Cyler and Loretta Devine respectively
Jamey’s friend, Rishi, is played by Mario Revolori, who is of Guatemalan descent
Veronica’s friend, Mackenzie, is played by Alice Lee, who is Korean-American
None of the characters of color feel stereotyped (save for a young Black student who performs slam poetry to a cheering, white audience). However, they’re all confined to the background. The main characters of this film—Sierra, Veronica, and Jamey—are white.
Deduction for LGBTQ: -0.25
The inclusion of transphobic language, even when used to paint someone in a negative light, only perpetuates transphobia itself. Screenwriter Beers defended the choice to include Veronica’s words, saying she was bullied herself with similar language in high school. But regardless of its realisticness, transphobic language can only cause more harm after it’s amplified (and implicitly normalized) in a widely circulated film like Sierra Burgess.
Deduction for Disability: -0.75
Jamey’s younger brother, Ty, is deaf and played by actual deaf actor, Cochise Zornoza. At first, the introduction of Ty’s character feels positive as the brothers share a loving and respectful relationship. Plus, it’s deeply important that deaf talent was cast for the role of Ty. (For more reading on why, director Jules Dameron has a great Tumblr post that covers the topic in detail.)
However, this positivity quickly sours. When Dan drags Sierra over to Jamey in exasperation, desperate to have his friend own up to the truth, Sierra feigns deafness so as not to blow her cover. Her fumbling, fake sign language towards Jamey’s Deaf brother, Ty, gets played for comic relief. But it’s frustrating to realize that the sole purpose of including a deaf character at all was probably for the purpose of making this insensitive joke.
American actor and deaf activist Nyle DiMarco stated his grievances on Twitter, saying that "pretending to be deaf is NOT ok." His tweet has picked up over 10,000 likes, showing that this "joke" was disturbing and offensive to many.
Bonus for Body Positivity: +1.00
Sierra Burgess does deliver what it says on the tin: the centering of an average-sized protagonist in a romantic role. The body positivity is well-rendered—Sierra’s weight is NOT the sum total of her character, and her insecurities stem from a realistic mix of things that all teenagers, and teenage girls especially, worry about. She worries about being alone at a party; she worries that a friend will snatch the boy she likes; and she worries that she’ll never be as perfect as her mom. I’ll gladly take protagonists like Sierra in future movies, so long as they stay sympathetic characters who aren’t busy catfishing men and stabbing their friends in the back.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 3.08/5
While the film has potential with its compelling cast and stunning visuals, it fails to deliver as a cute, re-watchable romantic comedy. Sierra’s wrongdoings make it hard to sympathize with her, although she does display redeeming qualities such as some inner confidence as an average-sized girl in the cutthroat world of high school.
Although marketed as a lighthearted rom-com with positive messages, Sierra simply crosses too many ethical lines while meeting no consequences to her actions. It’s a mix that left me uncomfortable and unsatisfied after the credits rolled.