Like Cyrano de Bergerac, the story on which it’s based, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser features a titular hero (Stranger Things’ Shannon Purser) who is funny and charming, well-versed in languages and literature, but crippled in love.
The high schooler is burdened not with a schnozz the size of a small country, but just the appearance of an average American girl. By not wearing makeup and knowingly posting unflattering selfies, Sierra finds comfort in purposefully eschewing the basic tenets of entering the popular crowd: After all, you can’t lose at a competition you opt out of entering.
Her confidence is quietly revolutionary: Sierra Burgess is the anti-Insatiable (also from Netflix), a film in which a heroine who doesn’t look like a runway model chooses not to starve herself but instead to just be happy.
Sierra’s nonchalance towards bullying and peer pressure (she goes so far as to correct the mean girl’s taunts: she meant Quasimodo, not Frodo) might be thanks in part to her tight-knit family trio, with parents played by ’80s teen movie icons Alan Ruck and Lea Thompson.
Yet the teen is forced to confront her own insecurities when she receives a text from hunky philosopher-jock-poet from the next school over (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before star Noah Centineo), a missive that was actually meant for mean girl cheerleader Veronica (Kristine Froseth). As Sierra digs herself deeper into the hole of her inadvertent catfish, she enlists Veronica’s help to be the face of the operation (in return, Sierra tutors Veronica to impress her college freshman boyfriend).
Centineo charms with the same ease he did in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. He has a vulnerability that’s rare in teen hunks, and scenes in which the character uses ASL with his little brother who’s deaf are enough to set one’s ovaries aglow (don’t call the police, in real life he’s 22).
The film itself is far from perfect. Implausible Rube Goldberg machinations of the setup aside, most of the side characters are thin as notebook paper. Sierra’s best friend, Dan (RJ Clyer), is a ball of chaotic, generic-sidekick energy, and Veronica’s mom (Chrissy Metz) is a cartoonishly nightmarish pageant mom in lycra, rhinestones, and blue eyeshadow. Plot elements that seem essential appear too late, and we never quite get the catharsis the movie seems to think it’s building toward. There’s also maybe three too many jokes about Sierra looking like a man, or a lesbian.
But the movie is also enlivened by an electronic score from Brett McLaughlin (a.k.a. Leland) and Bram Inscore that makes an old story feel both vital and modern. Purser is refreshingly relatable, and Peter Kavinksy-obsessed fans will love getting Centineo as another jock with a heart of gold.
One could plausibly make the case for Sierra Burgess being the finale to a Netflix rom-com trilogy begun by Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (we do not speak about The Kissing Booth). All three are wholesome as a family picnic, at once both modern and timeless. There’s also clear connective tissue that stitches the Venn diagram together: Harper (Zoey Deutch) repeatedly evokes Cyrano de Bergerac as a verb, as in, “You and I are going to Cyrano our bosses into falling in love.” (Deutch also happens to be Lea Thompson’s real-life daughter.) And aside from the obvious Centineo link between TATBILB and SBIAL, we get accidental-message-sent plot machinations and charmingly familiar parents.
But we don’t watch romantic comedies for groundbreaking plot structure. All three movies provide rainy-day comfort with the warm and fuzzy familiar. And so even if you’ve seen it all before, Sierra Burgess will still satisfy your end-of-summer sweet tooth. B
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