Sierra Burgess Is a Loser sounds like a movie written by Netflix bots on a mission to optimize internet crushes and Twitter discourse. A high school romance between Barb from Stranger Things and Peter Kavinsky from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before? What could possibly yield more thirst tweets, revived jokes that should remain dead, and reaction gifs?
Yes, the movie meets the shallow expectations you’d draw from that description—and goes great lengths to illustrate that Sierra Burgess is a "loser" in all the tropey ways that warrant an eye roll. Sierra is not like other girls because she’s smart (a near-perfect SAT score…jealous much??), awkward (can you believe she accidentally left some toothpaste on her face one morning?), and not hot (read: is neither 90 pounds nor blonde). We are familiar with this character.
The central romance ignites when Sierra’s bully, a hot cheerleader named Veronica, gives Sierra’s phone number instead of her own to a guy she’s not into (a hot football player named Jamey, aka Peter Kavinsky), landing all three of them in a wacky, accidental catfishing romance. This catfishing schtick goes on painfully long and its resolution is entirely expected (the ending goes exactly how you’d write it if you wanted everyone to learn something and still come away happy). Meanwhile, the film’s character development can also seem pretty tired: Jamey is kinder, smarter, and better than the jock stereotype we initially conjure; Sierra is not really a loser and is actually quite lovable despite not being "hot"; Veronica is more damaged and vulnerable than her perfect appearance lets on. They’re all just nice kids who are trying their best even though they fuck up sometimes.
But the movie brilliantly (and surprisingly, at least to my cynical ass) shines in its portrayal of friendship. Where teen girl characters are often limited to the binary of "hot bitch" or "mousy doormat," Sierra and Veronica are each a little bit of both, and so much more. As they work together to keep up the catfishing ruse, they grow close enough to become each others’ support systems through the trials of high school life.
Veronica struggles with her family—her mom is embittered after her husband abandoned their family "for a 22-year-old," and she takes it out on her kids with cruel jabs and strict house rules. She’s not doing well in her classes (her sisters call her "Moronica") and her love interest (a college guy named Spence), is a fuckboy who treats her like shit, taking pics of their hookup without her consent and saying disgusting things behind her back. Sierra struggles with her insecurities—her dad is a "genius" author and her mother is "gorgeous and successful," so she doesn’t know how she’ll ever measure up as an overweight "loser" whose college application lacks the unnamable quality that would deem her "special."
Caught in these recipes for low self-esteem, Veronica and Sierra become two sides of the same coin, revealing the ugly aspects of insecurity. Only high school seniors, Veronica is already jaded enough to believe that men only want nudes, and Sierra is convinced that no one will ever love her because she doesn’t look like a model. Both girls stoop to embarrassing lows for the smallest interactions with their crushes, suffering under the delusion that an accumulation of bare-minimum niceties is as nourishing as true affection. Mean hot chick or chubby nerd, love—or more accurately, the lack of it—is the great equalizer that crushes us all indiscriminately until we’re our ugliest, unrecognizable selves. Both girls fall into spirals of insecurity until their Cyrano plot is exposed: Veronica becomes a shell of a person, contorting her personality to transform into whoever she thinks will attract Spence. Sierra becomes cruel and vindictive, turning on her new friend after their catfishing scheme goes too far.
But Sierra and Veronica’s relationship is built on fighting off each other's insecurities. Sierra reassures Veronica that she's not a moron, pointing out the non-academic ways her intelligence manifests. In turn, Veronica helps Sierra realize her musical ambition when she hears her singing along to the radio. She becomes Sierra's biggest cheerleader, encouraging her to pursue a singing career when Sierra hadn't even considered it an option. It's this foundation of reassurance that ensures their friendship survives the disastrous aftermath wrought by the misguided plan that brought them together in the first place.
This is where the film transcends its algorithmic plotline and, like clouds parting, reveals a piercingly vivid truth about friendship between girls. Here, I was transported back to my own adolescence, when I learned that there would never be a cure for my insecurities—that I'd have to find my own way to live with and quiet them, but also that my friends will be there to pick me up when I stumble along the way. When I, like Sierra, feel that "the world is conspiring against you to tell you you're not good enough," it's in my friends that I find the truth.
It’s like this: Your friend feels awful after she misinterprets a life event as an indictment on her value as a person. She thinks that just because some asshole won’t text her back, it must mean she is hideous, terrible, and unlovable. In your rational mind, you know this is false. You tell her the truth: She is beautiful, good, and worthy of love. But no matter how much you tell her, and no matter how much you know it to be true, you cannot translate your feeling into a fact in her mind. The best you can do is repeat this truth, hoping that she’s listening until she can learn it herself. You must feel and understand this truth deeply, so that she can intuit how full your heart is when you hold her as she cries. You must hold this truth for her because she can’t or won’t, and hope she feels the overflowing weight and warmth of it radiating from you. You must carry this truth in your heart, and like an emergency snack stowed away in your handbag, silently present it to her whenever it’s needed. This is what Sierra and Veronica do for each other, and their relationship is far more powerful than the Sierra-Jamey one we’re supposed to care about.
From Sierra, Veronica learns to believe in her own intelligence and stand up to her mother. From Veronica, Sierra learns to be more confident in her talents, and that she’s more than her looks. They see the best in each other, and become better versions of themselves for it.
In the film’s final scene, I expected Sierra and Veronica to exchange apologies over how badly the catfishing scheme went. Instead, the two simply share a look from afar. They hold each others’ eyes as their faces go from tearful regret to joyous relief, wordlessly expressing that they’re there for each other, holding the truth of each other in their hearts. They run toward each other and embrace without having to say a word.