Understanding Sierra Burgess is a Loser

Netflix released a new young adult rom com this weekend, Sierra Burgess is a Loser. I’ve been excited about this movie for awhile–Netflix hit it out of the park with recent rom coms like Set It Up and To All the Boys I Loved Before, so I had high hopes for Sierra Burgess. Just before the movie released, I learned something that shot my excitement for this movie through the roof: 

Sierra Burgess is a Loser is a modern adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac

DUH! Of course it is! Cyrano de Bergerac is my favorite play. I’ve read it multiple times, and seen it performed at least twice. Modern gender-swapped YA retelling? Sign me up.

Here’s the thing. I’m seeing some not-so-excited takes on Sierra Burgess, and I think many of them stem from not knowing the source material. So let’s talk a little about Cyrano.

Cyrano is a French soldier, poet, and musician in the 1600s. He’s known for his panache — “flamboyant manner and reckless courage.” He’s in love with Roxane, but thinks he can’t win her because of his big nose, about which he is very insecure. (Don’t get too distracted by the big nose thing–in short, he thinks he’s not attractive.) A young and very handsome soldier, Christian, confides in Cyrano that he’s in love with Roxane, and Roxane’s confidant/chaperone tells Cyrano that Roxane is in love with Christian. So Cyrano, who would typically mock Christian mercilessly, takes him under his wing. Roxane expects a love letter from Christian, who’s not especially clever, and is afraid he won’t be able to woo her. Cyrano volunteers his assistance.

What follows is a play full of shenanigans–Cyrano writing letters to his love for the man she loves, Christian going on a date with Roxane and totally fumbling, eventually resulting in a famous balcony scene where Cyrano speaks to Roxane for him from cover of darkness and wins a kiss.

I won’t describe the ending, because spoilers, but that’s the setup of the play.

So. Here’s the setup for Sierra Burgess is a Loser:

Sierra is a smart, accomplished high school student. Her teachers love her, she exudes confidence, and she responds to (frequent) bullying with aplomb. When the resident hot  cheerleader (Veronica) is hit on by a boy she’s not interested in (Jamey), she gives him Sierra’s number. The two begin texting, with Sierra maintaining the pretense of being Veronica once she realizes that’s who he thinks she is. When Veronica is dumped by her boyfriend, Sierra coaches her through philosophy as a way to win him back and Veronica plays along with her deception of Jamey. The deception includes phone calls, a weird date that includes an awkwardly-played kiss where Jamey’s eyes are closed and Sierra jumps in for Veronica, and one short-lived video chat.

Okay. Here are some of the issues I’ve seen people bring up:

Catfishing — catfishing is a real problem in our society, and it’s certainly uncomfortable to watch play out on screen. The substitute kiss is disturbing to watch, and you have to wonder how messed up things will be for Jamey when he finally learns the truth.

However, it’s a vital part of the source material. Having the words of one person with the face/body of another is the fundamental device in the play. I think it would be great to see more of the fallout from this deception in the film, but the deception itself is vital to keep.

Bullying — Veronica is extremely cruel to Sierra, and it’s a little disconcerting to see them become friends throughout the film. Fellow blogger Avalinah *just* talked about bullying in a post about the enemies to lovers trope, so the delicate nature of the topic is fresh for me. I’m very torn here. We’re shown the significant differences between the girls’ experiences–Sierra’s stable, loving parents contrasted with Veronica’s mother, who’s bitter about her husband’s abandonment and obsessed with body and image. That’s not to mention Veronica’s chaotic and cruel little sisters. Bullies are often bullies for a reason, and it’s hard to know how to balance their stories with the needs of their victims.

Jokes — jokes are regularly made about Sierra’s size, looks, mannishness, or sexual preferences/orientation. I felt that most were made in ways that made sense in the setting and weren’t especially cruel. For instance, if the joke was made by Veronica or her friends, it’s already been established as an unacceptable thing to do. But I’m not a good judge of how those were executed or how they would land with different audiences, so you may want to look to #ownvoices reviewers for thoughts on that.

Confidence — A few people were frustrated because they felt like Sierra lost confidence and personality throughout the movie, transforming into someone different for Jamey. I didn’t feel that way at all. I think we got a very clear look at how outward confidence can mask inward fear. All the jabs about Sierra’s looks that she so easily rebuffs at school rise up and paralyze her when she’s confronted with the possibility that she’ll be rejected by someone she cares about. That’s very real.

Yes, she’s distracted in school. She neglects her friends. She struggles to find her voice or follow her convictions. And who doesn’t, in the throes of high school attraction? Don’t we all struggle with finding our identity, or with wanting something so much that we’re willing to neglect things we cared about before?

In the end, I think Sierra is a complicated and wonderful character who makes mistakes in many of the same ways that teenagers are likely to make mistakes. It’s important to me that we know that she (you, me) is not lesser for making those mistakes. She has a path forward in finding her voice, owning her mistakes, and growing.

Could parts of Sierra Burgess is a Loser have been executed better? Absolutely. It’s trying to tackle complex issues within the constraints of a hundreds-year-old story structure. But it’s still an interesting and enjoyable movie. I recommend it.

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