Harper Watched: Sierra Burgess is a Loser

Harper Watched is an ongoing series where I review entertainment media I have seen lately. Check out more reviews of TV, film, and theater by hitting up the Harper Watched page.

  via  Netflix

When the trailers for Sierra Burgess is a Loser first appeared, I was really excited. Sierra Burgess is a recently released Netflix high school coming-of-age story / teen rom com that is centered around a Cyrano de Bergerac style plot where a fat girl accidentally finds herself catfishing a really cute guy. (PS- I am just now putting together that Sierra Burgess is supposed to sound like Cyrano de Bergerac.) The cast is great, and seeing Shannon Purser, most famous for her iconic role as Barb on Stranger Things, be the lead in a teen rom com was really exciting. Shannon is fat, and not in a way that is traditionally praised in women (especially young women) and that means that Hollywood has never made it a priority to make someone who looks like her a loveable lead in a romcom. So this was super exciting, and many people had been hailing it as a counterpoint to Netflix's fatphobic (and also just poorly written) show Insatiable, based on the trailers for Sierra Burgess alone. Plus the male lead opposite her was Noah Centineo, who has stolen everyone's heart in To All The Boys I've Loved Before (another recently released Netflix teen romcom).

Boy, was I disappointed. 

As a warning, this review touches on fatphobia, transphobia, and homophobia as present in the show. I also discuss murder, suicide, and bullying in connection to these topics. Please read (and watch) with care.

The Plot

Sierra Burgess is a High School senior who is still trying to figure out what makes her special-- for college applications and for herself. She's the child of a "genius" poet and a successful self-help guru, and while she loves her parents, she also feels overshadowed by them. Her writing, while strong, bears the expectations that come with being her father's daughter, and her own self-esteem is pretty high but her feelings about her body specifically are more complicated. She tries not to focus on that and feels that her feelings about her body are also burdened with knowing her mother has never had a body like hers and can't relate and the fact that she feels like she has to like herself or it'll seem like her mother's failing. 

She has a best friend, a fun kid named Danny, who cares for her and supports her but also tries to push her out of her comfort zone a bit. And of course there is a mean girl named Veronica who dumps on Sierra for looking the way she looks and being the way she is. Veronica is in turn self-conscious about the fact that she is not very smart and her family is incredibly vain and critical.

When Jamey, a guy from a different high school, asks Veronica for her number one day, she decides he's a loser based on his two friends who look to her like losers. So she gives him Sierra's number instead of hers. Suddenly Sierra is texting with a cute guy who thinks she's a classically hot girl, and she is caught between connecting with him and lying about who she is. 

Throughout the course of the story, Sierra and Veronica (who by the way is into this college freshman who keeps stringing her along) become unlikely friends who conspire to keep this charade going until Sierra is ready to come clean. Of course, this is a precarious plan that goes awry.

Getting Down To Business

Sierra Burgess is-- apart from the intense college counselor and the texting/video-chatting-- written like it was made in the 90s. And I don't mean that as a compliment. The film is littered with off-hand homophobic, transphobic, and fatphobic lines. Particularly with the homophobic and transphobic lines, the film has no compassion or awareness. It throws out these lines recklessly and carelessly without examination. This is egregious. 

I want to start off by grounding this criticism in the fact that this kind of language has always been offensive. It has never been "right" or "okay." In the past, however, this kind of talk was normalized and in many places still is. This kind of language perpetuates violence against LGBTQIA folk, most severely against trans women whose average life expectancy is around 35. Trans women are frequently murdered for being trans women. Shantee Tucker, a Black trans woman, was murdered in Philadelphia two days before Sierra Burgess was released. A week or so before the release, a 9 year-old boy named Jamel Myles in Denver came out as gay, and then committed suicide as the result of the bullying that followed. 

How dare anyone making media, especially for young people, not bear the burden of these deaths. It is your responsibility as a writer-- or any creator in general-- to care for the wellbeing of your audience as it relates to your work. It seems so callous, especially in an era where information and awareness are easily accessible, to create content that is so carelessly and casually homophobic and transphobic. 

And to anyone defending this type of nonsense as holding a mirror to society, I ask: how does content that doesn't examine something bad "hold a mirror" to it? Sierra Burgess offers no examination or indictment of this behavior. It just makes it matter of fact. In fiction we are gifted with intentionality and choice when we build a world. What does it say of a writer who chooses to keep these cruelties in without a thought?

But that's by far not the only thing wrong with Sierra Burgess

The plot includes Sierra impersonating a disabled person for her own convenience. Sierra and Veronica tricking Jamey into kissing someone he was not given the option to consent to (it was more than a little Revenge of the Nerds-y). The only other fat character was Veronica's verbally abusive, fatphobic mother. It includes people learning to like Sierra "in spite of" her body. 

The writing itself is-- in addition to being offensive-- just not good at all. One particularly strident example: Using the term "Frodo" (as in, who took the ring to Mordor) as a term for a "geek" or a "loser" twice-- once from Veronica looking down upon someone, and once from Jamey's friends describing themselves-- is so absurd. This might have been a thing when the Lord of The Rings movies were fresh, but nowadays... what teen jumps to that off the bat? Let alone two? Coming from completely different angles? Who had not been present at either of the other's conversation with that reference? That's the kind of laziness that riddles the script. 

Sierra's "genius" father is perhaps the first supportive father character I have ever found completely unlikeable. All he does is quote tons of other poets at Sierra. He feels more like that guy trying to chat you up at a bar by "proving" how "smart" he is to you by reciting a bunch of stuff he memorized than an actual genius. It frustrates me. This whole movie frustrates me. 

The best part of the movie is the friendship between Sierra and Veronica that develops. But even that is just not explored enough or as well as I wish. 

I don't knock the cast for this film at all. I just wish someone else had written it. It feels like a 90s teen's garbled wish fulfillment diary exercise moreso than a fully fleshed out film. I wish the writer spent another year on it. I wish she had good dramaturgs / readers (including sensitivity readers) come in and help her fix stuff. I wish someone else entirely wrote it. I would not be surprised if, in the coming weeks, someone writes a better version of the film and puts it on a fanfiction site. 

The idea of the movie, the promise of the trailers, the hopes that the cast signed on for... I don't think those were bad things. This movie just doesn't deliver. It feels more like a bad made for TV movie than a fun film. Watch the trailer, write your own version of the movie in your head. I promise you it's better than what was actually released. Sierra Burgess is a Loser is, in fact, a loser.

Harper's Rating 1/5

Pros:

  • Shannon Purser as a lead. She's no one's sidekick.
  • I genuinely liked the cast. 
  • Shannon Purser sings a song and it's really cute.

Cons:

  • The writing is just awful.
  • Homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, and terrible to disabled folks.
  • Bad about consent.
  • The writing is really really awful.