High school is a great backdrop for a story. It’s a time that is full of angst, self-doubt and challenges that can drive the story. It’s also a time period that everyone can relate to, because we’ve all been to high school. That feeling of the world ending if you don’t get into the right college or never finding love are quite relatable. The over dramatization of these feelings also works because everything that happens in high school feels monumental. All of that makes it a perfect backdrop for a story and for the newest Netflix Original Sierra Burgess Is a Loser.
When Sierra Burgess randomly gets a text from a boy, thinking that she is someone else, she has to get the help of that person, who also happens to be the most popular girl at her school and her bully, to win this boy over. Sierra Burgess Is a Loser is far from the first film to use this plot. My high school and college years were full of films that took the unpopular person and paired them up with the cool and popular jock or cheerleader, where a love story of some sort would manifest. This isn’t a bad premise for a film because most people (myself included) wanted their high school years to turn into one of these films and end with an unlikely love between you and that popular person that doesn’t know you exist. There is also an intriguing element to taking this story and updating it for 2018. The problem with Sierra Burgess Is a Loser is that it is woefully generic.
Sierra Burgess fell into the simple trap that most movies set in high school fall into, shallow character stereotypes. In high school it’s easy to put people in cliques, there are the popular kids and the unpopular kids, the jocks and the kids in band, etc. This is such an easy trap because it is easily identifiable by the audience. If a kid is unpopular, then we know the traits usually associated with that and we can fill in that character. The problem is, when a writer does this it doesn’t allow for the character to have any actual depth, just a surface level stereotype. This can be used to describe every character in this film besides Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser). Veronica (Kristine Froseth) is the typical mean girl that is only mean because her home life sucks. Dan (RJ Cyler) is the funny minority that will always be there for Sierra and provide the humor the film needs to cut the tension. Jamey (Noah Centineo) is the misunderstood jock with a kind heart that isn’t like the rest of the guys. All of these characters are painfully generic and they acted in very generic ways.
The characters weren’t the only thing generic about this movie; the plot was also pretty bland. Lindsay Beer wrote a script that was predictable at every turn. Anyone that has ever seen a movie about young people could have predicted every beat of the film. This stood out all the more because of the uninteresting characters. A predictable story and uninteresting characters make for a tough sit. Another rough part of Beer’s script was the dialogue. Characters talked in a way that felt overly dramatic at times and other times they didn’t feel real. There were several eye rolling moments, when characters would either describe themselves or simply speak in a way that was unnatural to their character. Rough dialogue is always hard to overlook but it’s even harder to when the story is uninteresting.
In the midst of this messy script is the near saving grace for this film, the performers. The four main actors, Shannon Purser, Kristine Froseth, RJ Cyler and Noah Centineo all did a pretty good job. Purser will get most of the headlines as the lead and rightfully so. She carried the film and did her best to add emotional weight where the film needed it. She shined the most early on because she came across as very likable and we got to see her charisma. Purser works as a lead and I would be interested to see what she can do with better material. Froseth and Centineo were also solid. Centineo works as the crush that our main character is trying to win, and Froseth was able to make a bland character somewhat interesting. Cyler was the most underutilized of the four but still managed to be memorable. Even though he was the generic funny friend, he still had to be funny and he did bring some laughs. Betting on young actors is tough, usually they are what bring a film down but in this case they held the film up and made it watchable.
The performances did a lot to save Sierra Burgess but it couldn’t completely because of the complicated messaging. This film has a good heart. Director Ian Samuels tries to bring to life the heart that Beer put on the page, but they couldn’t get it to work. The first problem comes with the main character, Sierra. She is presented as a sympathetic figure. She’s not popular, the popular kids are picking her on and she’s not the Hollywood definition of pretty. By the time we settle into that and start to root for her, she starts doing some pretty terrible things and by the end of the film she can be easily describe as a bad person. She’s a bad friend to Dan and Veronica. She is catfishing a guy and she treats her parents poorly because one is pretty and the other is talented. You can’t root for this character by the end of the film, no matter how much she has gone through (which isn’t really all that much if you think about it), and that is a big problem.
Another problem I had was with the lack of consequences for our main character. She does things that most people would have to answer for and she doesn’t really. She treats Dan like crap pretty much the entire film, doesn’t even really apologize for it and he forgives her. She does Veronica real bad and they’re still friends without an apology at all. She goes off on her parents for nothing and they just take it and she catfished a guy and ended up with him. She never has to answer for any of the things that she has done and instead she gets rewarded for them. After it all hits the fan she just records a song and that song seems to solve all of her problems. No matter how you slice it that is complicated messaging and for a film that aspires to say so much it is incredibly frustrating for it to really say nothing at all. The best thing I can say about Sierra Burgess Is a Loser is that it means well. There is a foundation of something that is useful for its target demographic. Hopefully they can watch this and determine that other than some good performances this film has little to offer.
1 1/2 out of 5 stars
Director: Ian Samuels Writer: Lindsey Beer Starring: Shannon Purser, Kristine Froseth, RJ Cyler & Noah Centineo Release Date: September 7th Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 1 hour and 45 minutes