It was hard not to want Sierra Burgess Is a Loser to win.
The teen rom-com, which began streaming on Netflix last Friday, seems strategically constructed for maximum likability. Written by Lindsey Beer and directed by Ian Samuels, the film stars Shannon Purser, who won a cult following as Stranger Things’ Barb Holland, as the titular character. Sierra is shy, unassuming, and outrageously smart—the perfect template for the kind of rom-com heroine it’s easiest to root for. Noah Centineo, who claimed a million hearts with his performance as the sensitive heartthrob in Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, plays opposite Purser. As the quarterback Jamey, Centineo once again presents audiences with a wealth of emotional intelligence wrapped in a mathematically handsome exterior.
The film graphs itself onto a simple, nearly foolproof formula: Nerdy Girl meets Popular Poy, Popular Boy realizes love is more than skin deep, the two live (semi-)happily ever after. These kinds of romantic comedies, especially those in which the Nerdy Girl undergoes a physical transformation that catalyzes the Popular Boy’s life-altering realization about the complex nature of human attraction, don’t need to reinvent the (sometimes troublesome) trope to be satisfying. They just have to be executed well. Sierra Burgess Is a Loser draws from this tradition of unlikely romantic pairings, and makes some welcome improvements, most notably presenting a female protagonist who is not “nerdy” simply by virtue of wearing glasses and tying her hair into a bun.
But where Sierra Burgess Is a Loser begins to shed its wholesome veneer is in the ruse that brings its two leads together: When Jamey asks the resident mean-girl cheerleader, Veronica (Kristine Froseth), for her phone number at a café one afternoon, she sneakily gives him Sierra’s instead. Sierra, whom Veronica regularly taunts at school, receives a text from Jamey—a hot boy she’d otherwise never meet—and soon realizes he thinks he’s texting Veronica. Rather than inform him of the mistake, Sierra simply continues to text Jamey as Veronica. Jamey’s relationship with Sierra-as-Veronica deepens, leading to long, frequent phone calls.
In a surprising twist on hierarchy-based high-school friendships, Sierra is successful in enlisting Veronica’s help with her scheme, offering to tutor the cheerleader in exchange for her cooperation. (Their complicated friendship, a rarity in teen films, is one of the bright spots of the film.) Jamey, blissfully unaware, falls hard for the smart girl texting him—and the less brainy, more conventionally attractive avatar sent to represent her. Sierra and Veronica keep him in the dark. Without the benefit—the basic courtesy—of the truth, he cannot make an informed decision about where to direct his affections.
Films, and even romantic comedies, have featured far more high-stakes trickery than the ploy at work in this teen drama. That Sierra Burgess Is a Loser finds its leads entering a complicated relationship spurred by catfishing isn’t necessarily troubling. Many relationships involve some level of deception at their outset; Sierra’s is dramatic, but there could have been room for her to course-correct early on in the film. In effectively skewering Sierra’s deception, Beer and Samuels could’ve offered meaningful commentary on the damage wrought by any number of duplicities.
But Sierra doesn’t seem to experience any genuine contrition; she revels in self-pity, convinced her insecurities justify her manipulative behavior. The film avoids the route of self-motivated confession and instead buries Sierra’s reveal well into the third act. It’s a strange choice, one that obscures any real insights about the effects of bullying and low self-esteem on teens. Rather, Sierra Burgess offers an accidental lesson in the dangers of glossing over consent simply because it’s baked into the context of a Nice Person’s personal development.
Much of the film is cringeworthy, and not in the instructive, empathetic manner of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. While the many insults hurled at Sierra certainly sting (and a number of them raise troubling questions about the film’s obsession with mocking queer, trans, and disabled people), none of them justifies her glaring disregard for Jamey’s autonomy, bodily or otherwise. In perhaps the most disturbing scene of the movie, Veronica and Jamey lean against the hood of his Jeep after their first date at the movies. While the two chat, Sierra, who had also been sitting in the theater to surveil the pair, lies underneath the car. When Jamey moves in to kiss Veronica, she pulls away and insists he close his eyes. As soon as he does, she gestures to Sierra to take her place when Jamey, eyes covered, tries for another kiss. The kiss lands, but the scene doesn’t.
That the two effectively trick Jamey into kissing someone who is not the girl he thought he was sharing the moment with isn’t a joke. It’s not a heartwarming moment of aww, shucks teenage tomfoolery. It constitutes a serious breach of his consent, and it’s disappointing to see Sierra Burgess paint over the moment without thoroughly excoriating the two girls—especially Sierra—for conspiring to kiss Jamey without his informed participation. In fact, it’s the quick kiss that Veronica later shares with Jamey—eyes open—that’s portrayed as a more treacherous act, simply because Sierra had asked Veronica to refrain from doing so. This kiss leads Sierra to commit another reprehensible breach of trust, a betrayal she once again justifies because of her comparatively low social standing.
But insecurities and anxieties, teenage or otherwise, don’t give Sierra permission to manipulate the people around her. Breaches of consent don’t matter less if they’re perpetrated by women, or nerds, or otherwise downtrodden figures. In granting Sierra a happy ending—sans accountability—the film misses yet another opportunity to drive home an important message about the stakes of her behavior. When Jamey leans in to kiss Sierra—knowingly—for the first time, he wonders aloud whether his lips have met hers before. It’s meant as a tender, lighthearted moment of recognition, but the remark is tragic at its core, a reminder of the agency he lost at Sierra’s hands.
By condoning its titular character’s behavior throughout the film, Sierra Burgess warps the teen–rom-com formula past redemption and toward something far more sinister. That’s hard to root for.