Classic John Hughes films are marked by nostalgic high school romance.
“Sierra Burgess is a Loser” enters the genre with a technological twist.
The film, released on Netflix on Sept. 7, follows the titular character as she begins catfishing quarterback Jamey, who believes he is texting a popular cheerleader named Veronica. As their relationship progresses, Sierra must fight her insecurities to find her way in a competitive and shallow high school environment. Screenwriter Lindsey Beer, a former UCLA Extension student, said the film is a modern retelling of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” a 19th-century play written by Edmond Rostand. Beer’s rendition focuses on modern technology’s impact on high school relationships. In her adaptation, Beer said she aimed to twist the classic romantic comedy by tearing down stereotypes – especially those for female characters – often found in the genre.
“I was just so sick of seeing movies about toxic girls. It makes girls seem like they’re shallow and vapid,” Beer said. “I also just think, in general, the most popular girl in school and the least popular girl in school in a way have so much in common – they’re outliers on the bell curve.”
Though the film begins by setting up many familiar tropes – mean cheerleaders, desirable quarterbacks and nerdy outcasts – Beer said she aimed to turn the tropes on their head by creating bonds between characters who are usually pitted against each other. Both girls are under pressure despite stereotypically being from different worlds: Sierra to live up to academic standards, and Veronica to live up to social expectations. As the girls team up to continue their ruse, Beer said they find liberation through their commonalities, setting aside any potential jealousy.
Actress Shannon Purser, who portrays Sierra, said that in allowing the two characters to bond the film avoids the pitfall of pitting women against each other. Once they begin to understand each other, Sierra and Veronica realize they have only judged each other on appearance, Purser said.
Jamey, the male lead portrayed by Noah Centineo, also subverts typical rom-com tropes. Centineo said his character diverges from the typical high school quarterback character. Instead of hiding behind a hard external shell, Jamey is more in touch with his emotions and hangs out with others who aren’t considered popular. The character reflects a change in what is viewed as desirable in films, Centineo said.
“I think the times, the culture, our society are evolving. I think that we do want more conscious, more mindful, more loving, supportive, emotionally intelligent males as partners and as lovers,” Centineo said. “This film is a great representation of that.”
The female friendship, as well as Sierra’s more unconventional traits, modernize the genre, said director Ian Samuels. Though Sierra comes across as confident and self-assured at the beginning of the movie, Purser said she must grapple with her insecurities when her relationship with Jamey causes her to reconsider her preconceived notions of herself. Though the film does delve into self-doubt based on appearance, having a plus-size rom-com protagonist is of significance to Purser, who said she finds the lack of representation in that area disappointing.
“There’s a vast majority of women in real life who are over a size 12, yet we rarely see them on TV, and I just think that’s a disservice to women in general,” Purser said. “I’m very glad to be a part of that movement in redefining what is beautiful and whose story gets to be told in the media.”
Though he aimed to stay away from many contemporary references harkening back to the nostalgic feel of John Hughes films, Samuels said he also wanted to reveal how technology impacts relationships. Major plot points revolve around the use of cell phones and display the thought put into such interactions, like censoring oneself when texting or curating one’s Instagram. However, technology still establishes a connection, as seen through the progression of Sierra and Jamey’s relationship, Samuels said.
“I’m interested in capturing the intimacy of communicating through phones and how emotional that can be,” Samuels said. “The anxiety of waiting for a text, or trying to think of something to respond, or just the magic of talking to someone on the phone for hours and what that feels like.”
The instant availability of texting and calling allows Sierra and Jamey to build an intimate relationship despite the false pretenses, Centineo said. In integrating technology into the modernization of a classic story, Beer said she aimed to explore how it impacts present-day relationships. She said the film presents a double-edged sword: technology as both a means of connection and a mask for people to hide behind. Though it allows the two characters to quickly bond, Beer said it also forces Sierra to consider her own appearance in comparison to her peers.
“It’s a challenge because you want to be realistic about how the world treats women who are plus-sized, which isn’t always kindly. Especially in high school when kids can be mean and superficial and say dumb things,” Beer said. “No matter what you look like, the truth is it’s hard to be a teenage girl.”