It is a promising sign of the times that in just a few short years, Shannon Purser has gone from supporting player — albeit a beloved one — to leading lady in a glitzy Netflix rom-com that is sure to earn her even more fans. Best known for her role on Netflix’s Emmy-nominated “Stranger Things” as Barb, square sidekick to Nancy Wheeler, Purser garnered a devoted cult following from a mere three episodes. She has since charted a remarkably fast-track to mainstream success for a character actress, taking center stage in “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser.” A delightful bit of teen fluff based on “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the movie deftly treads familiar ground while injecting some much-needed body positivity into the genre.
Purser plays the similarly-named Sierra Burgess, a precocious high schooler living in the shadow of a famous novelist father (Alan Ruck), and saccharine motivational speaker mother (Lea Thompson). While Dad tests her literary knowledge with morning Dickens recitations, Mom doles out self-esteem acrostics over breakfast. “You are a magnificent beast,” she tells herself in the mirror, and she actually seems to believe it.
Rather than wallowing in self pity, as her “movie loser” forebearers might, Sierra Burgess doesn’t actually think she is a loser. (Or if she does, she doesn’t seem to care.) When a jock bumps her in the hallway at school, she shrugs it off with a smirk. When the popular Veronica (Kristine Froseth) spits insults her way, Sierra corrects her use of Frodo as an epithet: “You’re thinking of Quasimodo.” “I meant looking at you makes me want to gouge my eyes out,” Veronica clarifies ever so graciously. “I knew what you meant,” says Sierra with a shrug.
Veronica unwittingly sets the movie’s wheels in motion, giving Sierra’s number to a stammering boy named Jamey (Noah Centineo) as a joke. When he texts a selfie to the number later that night, Sierra knows it must be a mistake, but can’t resist replying. The two then begin a back and forth that passes for funny in the world of the movie, but mostly involves animal photos.
The funnier banter comes from Sierra’s scenes with her best friend Dan (RJ Cyler). When he learns of the situation, he calls her out for “catfishing” (a term for impersonating someone online). When Dan suggests it could be illegal, she replies: “Law is woefully behind technology, so I don’t think that’s true,” because that’s just the kind of teenager Sierra Burgess is. Once Dan gets into the spirit of the game, he encourages her to say hi to Jamey in real life — or IRL, as they would say. “Are you a catfish, or a can’t fish?,” he taunts.
Determined to continue her phone affair, Sierra propositions Veronica. In exchange for helping Veronica win back her college-aged boyfriend, Sierra asks for a few selfies to maintain the illusion. As Sierra tutors Veronica in literature and philosophy to impress the ex, the truth behind her popular girl facade slowly reveals itself. In a clever bit of unexpected casting, it turns out Veronica’s mother is a plus-sized pageant mom, played by none other than “This Is Us” star Chrissy Metz. As Sierra lectures Veronica over the shrieks of her bratty younger siblings, her mother warns against the irreversible effects of putting on fat cells at an early age.
Covering basics from the Socratic method to Oscar Wilde, Sierra and Veronica begin to forge a real bond, challenging Veronica’s earlier notion that “only losers hang out with losers.” Their blossoming friendship will be tested by Jamey’s considerable charms, especially as Veronica comes to learn the attractiveness of a personality. Her shifting values are best exemplified by her reaction to Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” which the movie uses as a smart literary analogy.
Directed by Ian Samuels and written by Lindsey Beer, who also serves as executive producer, “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” satisfies every teen movie trope while working overtime to correct the flaws of its precedents. Jamey has a little brother who is deaf (played by deaf actor Cochise Zornoza), and Beer manages to write in a scene that doesn’t make this feel like throwaway tokenism. Sierra’s purely platonic friendship with Dan refreshingly flouts the tired notion that boys and girls can’t be friends. As “Clueless” did before it, turning literary classics into teen blockbusters is a tried-and-true method. While “Sierra Burgess” doesn’t come close to the brilliance of “Clueless,” it’s certainly smarter than your average teen fare.
The real strength of “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” is the steely determination and sharp intellect of Sierra herself, for which Purser must be given most of the credit. Having recently scored with the much-praised “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Netflix has cracked the code for cheesy teen rom-coms. This one, however, centers on the girl most Hollywood movies would relegate to the sidelines. Sierra’s brazen self-love is a radical act in a world that doesn’t exactly celebrate girls who look like her — and the same could be said for Purser’s well-deserved success.
“Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” premieres on Netflix on September 7.