Netflix distributes two types of rom-coms. You have The Kissing Booth, where hyper-masculinity is the root of the love interest’s behaviour, and the protagonist is a one-dimensional character who is objectified and sexualised by the misogynistic narrative. But then you have To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before where the protagonist is a layered character, whose identity is not defined by whoever boy she’s crushing on, and whose solitary persona is not portrayed negatively by the screenwriter.
Sierra Burgess is a Loser is on a weird middle-ground. While it subverts stereotypes by having a plus-size “heroine,” who doesn’t have a typical ‘big makeover’ scene in the film, it does contain some problematic tropes, such as Sierra being constantly referred to as a “lesbian” because of her lack of conventional attractiveness.
Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, a modern retelling of the play Cyrano de Bergerac, follows Sierra Burgess, a high school reject (Shannon Purser) catfishing Jamey (Noah Centineo), a jock, and in a case of mistaken identity, their relationship leads to romance. With the help of an unlikely ally, Veronica (Kristine Froseth), Sierra’s scheming goes on for way too long, eventually alienating herself from the few people she had close to her.
The Netflix original opens with our protagonist, staring at herself in the mirror proclaiming, “You are a magnificent beast.” Unfortunately, this confidence is a flimsy front, as shown by her deceitful actions later on in the story that seems to come from a place of insecurity; a need for validation. However, the screenwriter, Lindsey Beer, presents an interesting sentiment that being a victim causes rash behaviour and, therefore can morph into a more twisted person than the bullies themselves, because her hatred is driven from a place of vulnerability.
Like many other romcom lovers, I don’t expect an Oscar-winning masterpiece when I watch Netflix’s newest original; however, the warmness and wit that I crave was notably absent from this film. Quite frequently, the dialogue tended to fall flat. Jamey’s and Sierra’s evolving relationship seems to consist of them sending each other pictures of “funny” animal pictures, and asking each other questions such as “If you were a flower, what kind would you be?” Conversations between the pair were of little substance, emphasised by the fact that they were rarely physically together. During the reconciliation at the end, the chemistry between the two was noticeably absent.
Despite her relationship with her parents and even Jamey being thinly developed, Sierra Burgess herself is extremely multi-layered, and perhaps even an “anti-hero” as Shannon Purser herself said in an interview with Vogue. Once the character of Veronica is stopped being written as a complete caricature, a great friendship between the duo develops, even if it’s for the wrong reasons. As Jamey leans in to kiss Veronica, Sierra is switched by her friend instead. While presented as a ‘cute’ moment on screen, with an equally cheesy soundtrack to heighten the emotion, it struck me as extremely disturbing, since Jamey consent was being entirely dismissed. If this was any other character except our protagonist, Sierra (who at this point I began to dislike), it would be framed as disgusting by the director, which it rightfully is.
While Sierra Burgess is a Loser does present a great female friendship and a multi-layered, plus-size protagonist, it’s hard to ignore the flaws that cloud this entire film. From Sierra faking a disability to one of the only black characters having no purpose other than to tell Sierra that what she’s doing is wrong, one cannot ignore the protruding problems this film has. Were there some cute moments? Yes. But it cannot be ignored that the filmmakers glorified sexual assault and overall tried to make cat-fishing, an illegal and very harmful practice, romantic.