'Sierra Burgess Is a Loser': Film Review

Courtesy of Netflix
'Sierra Burgess Is a Loser'
More snoozer than loser.
9/7/2018

Shannon Purser and Noah Centineo co-star in Netflix's latest teen rom-com, an adaptation of 'Cyrano de Bergerac.'

It seems a shame that Netflix chose to end its impressive run of summer teen comedies with Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, an exceedingly  conventional and mild-mannered rom-com. Lifted from Edmond Rostand’s 1897 Cyrano de Bergerac, perhaps one of the most reworked literary classics of all time, this well-intentioned feature seems best suited to a streaming platform like Netflix, allowing viewers to conveniently drop in and out of the timeline if their enthusiasm falters.

After the manic high jinks of The Kissing Booth, The Package’s raunchy laugh-fest and the romantically fantastical To All the Boys I've Loved Before, Sierra Burgess feels like, well, homework. While its indispensable girl-power self-affirmational instincts are sound and a committed cast assiduously focuses on delivering an uplifting message, this is regrettably uninvolving material.

Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser) is an overachiever. Scoring great grades, standing out for her insightful writing assignments and speaking several languages, she’s way ahead of most students, which makes her a loser in the eyes of much of her junior class. Inevitably targeted for bullying — in one scene, gorgeous mean girl Veronica (Kristine Froseth) and her snide sidekicks try to shame her for her curvy figure, abundant freckles and unruly mop of curly red hair  Sierra isn’t afraid to stand up for herself. Besides, her best bud, Dan (RJ Cyler), always has her back, even if he isn’t above some constructive criticism.

So when she tells him that she’s been receiving mysterious snaps and text messages from a super-cute guy who clearly thinks she’s somebody else, Dan urges her to disclose the error ASAP and avoid becoming a catfishing punchline. That’s not going to be easy, though, because Jamey (Noah Centineo) turns out to be the quarterback for the rival high school’s football team and a total charmer. Then comes the bombshell: He actually thinks she’s Veronica, after her rival shares Sierra’s phone number as her own. Desperate to continue her digital deception until she can find a way to persuade Jamey that she’s just as desirable as the girl he thinks he's texting, Sierra attempts to recruit Veronica into her scheme. If they can establish an uneasy truce for long enough, the two may discover that there’s more connecting them than separating them.

The name-checking of British author and composer Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), who reconceived Cyrano as a Broadway musical, perhaps offers the first clue that this adaptation is going to be more work than fun. Screenwriter Lindsey Beer (who’s on a serious roll with a string of high-profile projects) seems so determined to make the film life-lesson-worthy that she drains much of the spontaneity from the teen experience. Sure, there’s the requisite kegger midway through the movie and some half-hearted horsing around to do with Sierra’s role in the marching band, but mostly the situations are designed to convey the essentials of female self-empowerment.

Purser (Wish Upon, Netflix’s Stranger Things), with her open face and ready smile, is ideally suited to demonstrate Sierra’s initial self-assurance as the hopelessly well-adjusted only child of doting, overachieving parents, before getting overwhelmed by sudden romance. Centineo (To All the Boys I've Loved Before), who’s building his own impressive resume, nicely manages a tricky balance between masculine assertiveness and unexpected vulnerability, particularly when confronted by Sierra’s profound deceptions.

One almost hesitates to consider that perhaps its literary origins are what’s holding Sierra Burgess back, particularly when the source material is a work as inspired as Cyrano de Bergerac, but maybe just letting these teens be teens might have resulted in a more amusing, less deterministic outcome.

Production company: Black Label Media
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Shannon Purser, Noah Centineo, Kristine Froseth, RJ Cyler, Chrissy Metz, Alan Ruck, Lea Thompson
Director: Ian Samuels
Screenwriter: Lindsey Beer
Producers: Molly Smith, Rachel Smith, Trent Luckinbill, Thad Luckinbill
Executive producers: Alexandra Beer, Lindsey Beer, Brian Pitt, Ellen H. Schwartz
Director of photography: John W. Rutland
Production designer: Callie Andreadis
Costume designer: Romy Itzigsohn
Editor: Andrea Bottigliero
Music: Bram Inscore, Brett McLaughlin

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes