Sierra Burgess is a Terrible Person
When the main character finally gets the love interest, the audience is supposed to cheer for them, be elated – overjoyed, even. It’s the moment of joy that the whole movie has been building up to, leading to a satisfying and heartwarming end. However, as I watched Sierra Burgess finally kiss her love interest, Jamey, I found myself yelling “Nooo!” at the top of my lungs.
The Netflix original Sierra Burgess is a Loser is a teen romcom centered around the titular character, Sierra Burgess. Sierra is an overweight band geek, surrounded by the typical high school mean girls reminiscent of Mean Girls or Heathers. The “Regina George” of the school, Veronica, gives Sierra’s number to cute football player Jamey, and Sierra subsequently decides to catfish him for two weeks. She teams up with Veronica to dupe Jamey in exchange for tutoring, and the pair successfully manage to orchestrate a carefully coordinated FaceTime call, a real life date, and several in-person meetups. In this, an unlikely friendship between Veronica and Sierra develops, but as her fake relationship with Jamey gets more and more out of hand, Sierra gets a little too desperate to keep up the charade. After seeing Veronica kiss Jamey, Sierra decides to hack Veronica’s Instagram account and spread the fact that Veronica once got dumped over DM. As a result, their friendship crumbles, Jamey finds out that he’s been catfished, and Veronica becomes the biggest loser in the school. In an attempt to repair her relationships, Sierra writes a song expressing her feelings and plays it for each of her friends; this ends up being more than enough, and Sierra manages to fix everything and go to the homecoming dance with Jamey, finally getting the guy.
While this ending is supposed to be a big victory, it comes off as empty and slimy considering everything Sierra has done up until this point. Sierra Burgess may not be a loser, but she is most certainly a terrible person. Aside from catfishing a poor man, she kisses him without his consent, hacks her friend’s Instagram account, spreads an embarrassing photo of that same friend, and repeatedly lies and flakes on her best friend. We as an audience have no reason to empathize with Sierra, because she’s a terrible person. The weak introduction of her body insecurities is not enough for an audience to empathize with her, and she seemingly goes out of her way to trick poor Jamey over and over. But strangely enough, the movie seems to push the audience to root for her – every bad thing she does is followed with some positive dialogue about how they had a “moment” or a “connection.” Her terribleness, though, is not the issue. Protagonists can be a terrible people – it can be incredibly interesting to see their arc as they grow, but that’s the problem – Sierra doesn’t grow as a character. She never learns from her mistakes, nor do we see her realize that her actions were bad and have consequences.
Those are the reasons why the ending had felt so off. She had done nothing to earn everyone’s trust back, and there is no good reason for her to get the perfect happy ending. The song she crafts at the end is very self-focused: it is about her feelings and her feelings alone, and it serves as more of a justification for her actions rather than an apology – which is what it should’ve been. After abandoning her best friend for a guy, hacking an Instagram account, and catfishing a guy for 2 weeks, all Sierra does is focus on herself. She doesn’t acknowledge the pain she’s caused everyone else, so she never learns that what she did was, in fact, terrible. Jamey even tells her at the end that what she did was “bad, like, really bad,” and she somehow turns that into a justification for her actions – she had felt like the “whole world is against her.” Her feelings are valid, real experiences that teens have, but the speed at which the movie tosses aside her catfishing – which, by the way, is legally dicey – shocked me. Sierra receives no repercussions for her actions. The most she gets punished is by her father, who attempts to ground her after she comes home drunk one night; even then, it’s unclear as her mother and father drift offscreen to discuss her punishment. Somehow, after everything she’s done, her single non-apology song is enough for everyone in her life to forgive her. The movie actually rewards her for her terrible behavior, strangely placing catfishing into a positive light. If anything, a better ending for the movie would’ve been Sierra going to Jamey to advocate for Veronica instead of the other way around, so that Veronica ends up with Jamey. This would’ve been a more direct apology and an active attempt on Sierra’s part to selflessly ameliorate the situation, something that is desperately missing from this movie.
Sierra Burgess is a Loser falls shorter than short when it comes to teen romcoms. As much as I appreciated the “unconventional lead” – though even this is a stretch, because Sierra is a pretty girl – that issue of insecurity and self-esteem was barely explored in this movie. This casting felt more like a pat on the back rather than an aim for better body diversity, which makes the movie feel even cheaper than it already does. In addition, what little humor in the movie was often at the expense of the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities; a cheap joke instead hides positive deaf representation as Sierra pretends to be deaf to avoid exposing herself as a catfish. The issue of consent was a big issue in one of the defining moments of the movie, as Sierra kisses Jamey without his knowledge. Sierra clearly understands boundaries as, in a later scene, we see her avoiding someone trying to kiss her shirt, yet she doesn’t understand the fundamental wrongness of the kiss. It’s weird opposing ideas like this that make the movie more confusing than nuanced.
The only good things about this movie are RJ Cyler as Sierra’s sassy friend Dan – who is himself another stereotype – and Noah Centineo as love interest Jamey. Dan provides a good balance of humor, often speaking as the voice of the audience and constantly criticizing Sierra’s actions, only to be ignored. Centineo does a great job capturing the rather one-dimensional character of Jamey, but his charm and dorkiness prevent the character from seeming too dull. If anything, watch this movie for them.