At first glance, Netflix’s recent release “Sierra Burgess Is a Big Loser,” seems to have all the elements to make it an instant classic. The teen rom-com boasts two Netflix cult favorites as the leading pair: Shannon Purser also known as Barb from “Stranger Things” and Noah Centineo who recently found fame as Peter in “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.” The unlikely pair fit perfectly into the nerdy-girl-meets-star-athlete-and-they-unexpectedly-fall-in-love trope that audiences love to root for.
The film’s trailer makes it seem like a quirky teen rom-com with a main character who dispels the trite narrative that leading actresses have to fit conventional beauty standards. Unfortunately, a flurry of offensive jokes and an extremely unlikable main character makes for a film that falls short of fan expectations.
The movie opens with lead character Sierra Burgess exiting the shower, and it seems to stay true to its body positivity motif. The film scans over the character’s body, exhibiting her flaws in plain sight while Sierra recites positive affirmations in the mirror.
In this moment, the film offers a glimmer of hope and valid representation to all the flawed, normal girls watching at home.
That hope however, is squashed when the film quickly expels these positive themes as Sierra’s appearance receives constant ridicule from many of her peers. Her classmates frequently joke that she’s either transgender or lesbian, implying that these identities somehow belong to inherently unattractive people. The film’s writers could have used these offensive jokes as an opportunity to highlight real problems that the LGBTQ community faces. Rather, they are simply bad jokes made in poor taste.
At first, the film sets you up to not only like Sierra Burgess, but to feel sympathy for her. She seems to be a mild-mannered, intelligent high school student. This all changes when token popular girl Veronica (Kristine Froseth) cruelly gives out Sierra’s number to attractive quarterback Jamey.
Jamey texts the number under the pretense that he’s texting Veronica. With no apparent hesitation or remorse, Burgess becomes a catfish, consistently misleading Jamey through a variety of tactics. One of the biggest problems in the film is glorification of catfishing, as it presents scenes of Sierra misrepresenting herself and lying to Jamey over text as if they’re supposed to be as magical and romantic as a John Hughes film.
Veronica assists Sierra with her catfishing schemes and an unexpected friendship begins to blossom. The friendship between Veronica and Sierra presents another opportunity to explore a theme that many films seem to lack: genuine female friendship.
Rather, the film presents two girls whose entire friendship is rooted in manipulating and hurting an innocent bystander. This friendship does not give any credit to teenage girls and only serves to perpetuate the ideas that they are catty and shallow.
Veronica’s willingness to help Sierra catfish Jamey leads to arguably one of the most controversial scenes. Veronica agrees to go on a date with Jamey, while Sierra discreetly watches from nearby. When Jamey leans in to kiss Veronica, Sierra steps in instead, unbeknownst to him. In a world where there is a growing need for consent, “Sierra Burgess is a Loser” tragically, and disappointingly fails.
In a Vice article , Shailee Koranne writes, “The scene is low-key pathetic, and if you hadn’t yet questioned the consent issues throughout the film, this might be where you start.”
Many viewers also took offense to a scene where Burgess pretends to be deaf, imitating American Sign Language in order to avoid speaking to Jamey. Actor and model Nyle DiMarco took to Twitter saying he was very excited about the deaf representation in the film, until he saw the poor execution of the scene.
Again, the movie glorifies Sierra’s bad behavior as she constantly raves about how amazing this kiss was, not once addressing the problematic nature of her actions.
Sierra also begins to ignore her one genuine friend Dan (RJ Cyler) in the midst of her catfishing endeavors. In addition, she releases an embarrassing photo of Veronica to many of her peers before it’s publicly displayed at a football game. With one last step, revealing herself to Jamey as a catfish, Sierra establishes herself as a selfish, villainous character.
This is the part where we all hope Sierra will finally crash and burn, that she will finally face some consequences for all the wrong she has done. Instead, Sierra ends up getting everything she wants and just like the rest of the film, her problematic behavior is forgiven.
Netflix had a chance to release a perfect follow up to “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” but sadly the film sends the wrong message in so many ways, from its glorification of catfishing to consistently rewarding its main character despite her propensity to treat everyone around her horribly.
Netflix is going to have to earn back the trust of its teen audience after this blunder.