I have a secret. Chick flicks are my guilty pleasure. That’s not something a heterosexual male would be advised to admit, for fear of his heterosexual maleness being called into question, but there you go. The Parent Trap is one of my all-time favourite films. I absolutely love The Princess Diaries. One of my favourite TV shows at the moment is Skam, which, while neither a flick nor necessarily for chicks, because of its themes it tends to appeal much more to a young female audience.
So when Netflix periodically releases new teenage rom-coms about boys and girls in love, you can be sure that I’m right there lapping it up. The Christmas Prince, The Kissing Booth and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before have been some of the recent offerings in that vein. But my favourite so far has been Sierra Burgess is a Loser, which stars everyone’s favourite teenage martyr, Barb from Stranger Things (i.e. Shannon Purser).
Sierra Burgess is a Loser is about a cool, hot football player who falls in love with a not-hot and unpopular dork because he thinks she’s a hot, popular cheerleader, the hot, popular cheerleader having given the football player the dork’s number instead of hers.
Put like that, it’s not a film that strays very far from teenage rom-com tropes. You’re not going to see anything original or novel or challenging. No one’s going to remember Sierra Burgess is a Loser as a timeless classic of its genre. But, to my mind, it doesn’t have to be. It’s just a nice, heartwarming, well-written film, and that should be enough. It has an engaging and ingenious plot. It has wonderful, sympathetic characters — even if Veronica, pre-character development, comes across as the lazy caricature of a teen rom-com “mean girl”. Sierra Burgess is one of the most affection-grabbing female leads of the genre, played superbly by Shannon Purse. And it speaks to its young audience, exploring honestly the anxieties surrounding dating and social inclusion and appearance that so many teenagers face.
I think my favourite thing about this film was not the unlikely love affair between Sierra and Jamey, but the equally unlikely super-cute friendship between Sierra and Veronica that flowers over the course of the film. Two totally different women, from despising one another initially, through their arrangement of mutual convenience come to develop a close and positively adorable friendship. The scenes of the two hanging out in Sierra’ bedroom, or sharing their glee after successfully tricking Jamey over a video call, are some of the best in the movie. It’s heartwarming stuff that won’t fail to bring a smile to your face. And through her friendship with Sierra, Veronica gets character development in leaps and bounds, transitioning from the resented, pantomime mean girl she was at the beginning of the film to a three-dimensional figure of sympathy and affection by the end of it.
But we have to talk about some of the flak this film’s been getting, because it hasn’t been received without controversy. The usual suspects have slammed Sierra Burgess as a “problematic” character who engages in catfishing, cyber bullying and insensitivity towards deaf people (in the sense of pretending to be one). Yes, she is all that, and none of that is okay. Catfishing ain’t okay. Cyber bullying is bad. But so what? It was a nice film. Sierra Burgess is a great character — not a perfect character, but, frankly, no character should be perfect. Why the insistence that protagonists must be the moral equivalent of Jesus Christ when, truly, no one is perfect? No one is unproblematic. Let he who is unproblematic among you cast the first stone. And aside from anything else, a wholly unproblematic, angelic protagonist would be utterly boring. No thank you.
The problematic behaviours we do see from the characters in the story are rightly called out (through other characters) as not-okay. Isn’t that enough? For me, at least, it is. Sierra Burgess is a Loser is a charming, riveting story and moral tut-tutting over the main character’s behaviour shouldn’t get in the way of telling it.