A ‘Loser’ looks for love in Netflix’s latest teen rom-com

September 21, 2018

Every “Stranger Things” fan who tweeted #BarbDeservedBetter might be delighted to find her thriving in a new role where, finally, she gets the praise she deserves.

Barb fans can rejoice — well, sort of.

Shannon Purser, best known for her breakout role in a few episodes of Netflix’s international hit, “Stranger Things,” has officially stepped up from a supporting role to the lead actor as the titular character in “Sierra Burgess is a Loser.”

“Sierra Burgess” tries really hard to break societal norms and give praise to the “losers” of the world. Purser’s character stars as a high schooler who is smart, funny and a good writer.

The film seems to mimic stereotypical American high schools and the unfair mistreatment and bullying often pushed onto students who look “different” — defined as “losers” — with Purser starring as the main “loser” of the story, seemingly just because of her appearance.

Purser does not resemble the average small, perfect woman cast in most American films and series. She’s a little tall, she has some freckles and she probably can’t fit into the extra-small wardrobe worn by most young female actors.

“Sierra Burgess” could have been the breakout role Purser really deserved, showcasing a lead female actor who doesn’t look like everybody else while demonstrating why her appearance shouldn’t matter. The film could have been a smart, critical exploration of the negative connotation society holds against people who don’t abide by the “norm.”

Instead, the film appears to be fueled by the same stereotypes it attempts to reject.

The opening scene of the film features Purser’s character getting out of the shower. Viewers first see her feet, legs and then the rest of her body as she wraps a towel around herself. The camera zooms in on her pale skin and freckles before panning out to get a shot of Purser’s entire body.

With that first shot, director Ian Samuels goes out of his way to focus on Sierra’s body, making it clear that Sierra is not a petite, tan, blond girl with unblemished skin, an ideal which seems permanently cemented into society.

It’s only after viewers see Sierra’s body that they’re finally introduced to her face as she wipes the condensation off a small bathroom mirror.

Maybe this opening scene is necessary to establish Sierra as different from the “norm,” and it might seem like harmless cinematography to many viewers, but critical eyes might think otherwise.

The first line of the movie occurs as Sierra stares at her reflection in the mirror.

“You are a magnificent beast,” she says to herself.

There’s something hugely wrong with that first line by screenwriter Lindsey Beer. Why is Sierra a “beast”? Because she’s tall? Because she isn’t as skinny as the average model? Why couldn’t Sierra just say, “You are magnificent”?

The mantra appears to comfort Sierra. After she says it aloud, she slightly smiles to herself. She seems fine declaring herself a “beast,” but some viewers might argue it’s a cruel line unfortunately delivered by an actor who is so far from beastly. And it’s suggesting to viewers that Sierra — and the real “losers” like her — all are beasts.

According to the film’s logic and the stereotypes it confirms, Sierra, the “magnificent beast,” probably wouldn’t have started talking to the popular football player Jamey (Noah Centineo, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”) if they met face to face.

Luckily, Jamey hits on Veronica, portrayed by Kristine Froseth in her first significant acting role, a popular cheerleader who spends too much energy taunting and bullying Sierra for her appearance.

Among other insults scattered throughout the film, Veronica mistakenly refers to Sierra as Frodo from “The Lord of the Rings” series, confusing the character for the unsightly Quasimodo from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Though Veronica’s ego is boosted when Jamey asks for her phone number, she already has a college boyfriend, so she declines Jamey’s request — but then gives him Sierra’s number instead, claiming its her own.

So, Jamey begins texting Sierra, believing he’s talking to Veronica. Sierra, being the stereotypically lonely, boy-hungry girl society wants her to be, happily begins catfishing Jamey.

Sierra’s “Veronica” and Jamey converse regularly, and things escalate from there.

The conversations between “Veronica” and Jamey via text begin to outlive their digital space. Jamey wants to meet face to face, and Sierra panics.

Feeding into the stereotypes, Sierra believes Jamey would never love her if he sees the real her, especially when compared to the skinny, gorgeous Veronica.

To continue the facade of their digital relationship, Sierra enlists the help of her bully. Veronica agrees to act as herself during face-to-face dates “Veronica” goes on with Jamey.

At this point in the film, a viewer’s level of enjoyment simply might depend on their age. Younger audience members in middle or high school might be delighted to see Sierra’s version of their lives mirrored on film. Admittedly, the film will probably stand out as funny, charming and enjoyable to its targeted audience.

But it might be hard for older viewers to look past the film’s cliche lines and stereotypical plot. The film might rouse little to no reactions in older viewers, other than disappointment.

Despite the barriers the film is obviously trying to break by casting an unconventionally attractive actor in the lead role, “Sierra Burgess” doesn’t break any boundaries, and it doesn’t offer viewers any riveting, intelligent message of what it means (or doesn’t mean) to be a teenage loser in 2018.

Instead, the film simply tells its audience that girls categorized as “losers” by their peers can only interact with popular boys through “a case of mistaken identity.”

It looks as if filmmakers have yet to understand that the Sierra Burgesses of the world do not need another rom-com telling them they need to be someone else to be happy or change their appearance to find love.

This fatal flaw might not necessarily be any one person’s fault. Maybe it’s society’s unfair beliefs and judgmental perceptions constantly bleeding into American film.

Regardless of who or what is to blame, Purser and all the people like her are not losers.

Shannon Purser still deserves better.

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