While it’s no secret that Netflix has redefined at-home programming with their production of original content, the streaming service has come out with an increasing number of original content focused toward the same demographic in an alarmingly short amount of time. In the last five months, Netflix has released “The Kissing Booth,” “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” and most recently “Sierra Burgess is a Loser.” These feature-length films are accompanied by series such as “Insatiable” and “Everything Sucks,” melodramas or dramedies that attempt to be a more accurate portrayal of today’s high school culture.
What all three of these recent Netflix films have in common are a departure from the traditional female main characters as well as supporting roles seen in other films about “surviving high school.” However, I wouldn’t go as far as to congratulate Netflix just yet on “redefining” inclusivity within the film industry. “Sierra Burgess is a Loser” is Netflix’s latest attempt to do this, and while the film is relatively well-received — earning a 60 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — it falls short in several key ways.
Netflix’s main casting choices for this film remain within their family. Shannon Purser, known for her role as Barb in “Stranger Things,” plays Sierra. Noah Centineo, who plays Sierra’s love interest Jamey, barely finished starring as Peter Kavinsky in “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” before he appeared in this film. Purser shines as Sierra, but it’s difficult to see Centineo as anyone other than Peter Kavinsky. While his character Jamey is called a loser by the popular girl Veronica, played by Kristine Froseth, he is still the quarterback of the football team and drives a Jeep Wrangler: all too similar to the lacrosse-playing Peter Kavinsky.
The ginger-haired and freckle-faced Sierra is just trying to graduate high school and go to Stanford University when she gets a text one night from an unknown number. After it turns out to be Jamey, she can’t fathom why he would be texting her, and she soon discovers that Jamey thinks she is Veronica, the head cheerleader. Sierra doesn’t tell Jamey otherwise and continues to text him and even talk on the phone with him. She claims their connection is too strong to tell Jamey the truth and argues he wouldn’t like her if he knew what she looked like. When Jamey inevitably asks to FaceTime with Veronica, aka Sierra, Sierra makes a deal with Veronica in order to keep her secret.
The classic trade-off of the school nerd tutoring the popular girl is a weak, age-old plot point, but it ultimately leads to a deeper friendship between Sierra and Veronica. While it is problematic that the two girls are bonding over catfishing someone, Sierra sees that Veronica’s life is not as perfect as everyone thinks. Her 20,000 followers on Instagram don’t match up to her disjointed life at home, and Sierra begins to understand that everyone has some aspect of their life they wish they could change.
Purser’s onscreen chemistry with her castmates is apparent; we believe her relationships with both Veronica and Jamey. However, while we think Sierra is a fairly mild-mannered high school student, comfortable with her social status, we ultimately see that she is not as innocent as she appears to be.
When Sierra lies to Jamey about her identity, the audience can accept it on the basis that she would do anything for romance. But when she humiliates Veronica in front of the entire football game, a different side of Sierra is developed. Yes, the stereotype of a big dramatic scene on a football field is almost too much to handle, but Netflix brings it into 2018 by using Instagram as a platform for humiliation. The real issue here is that Sierra is willing to throw away her friendship with someone she legitimately seemed to care about, all because Veronica kissed the boy she liked. Putting these two girls at odds with one another, over a football quarterback, is a tired cinematic climax — especially given the fact that the reconciliation at the end of the film is a quick apology: a hug between the two girls. While Sierra ultimately realizes that she’s not a loser, as the name of the film would suggest, it really only comes from Jamey’s confirmation when he comes to take Sierra to the Homecoming Dance.
“Sierra Burgess is a Loser” is a great watch when you’ve binge-watched “The Office” too many times, but it falls short in expectations. When you really get down to it, “Sierra Burgess is a Loser” is just as stereotypical and problematic as other films, sprinkled with some slightly improved and updated characters and plot points. Calling someone a loser because they are not a size two or athletic and don’t dress on trend is a stretch. Only having one friend and doing well in school should not make you a loser. Netflix forced the character of Sierra into the loser archetype, perhaps because someone had already thought of the name for the film.