[Editor’s note: The following post contains some spoilers for “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser.”]
Netflix’s newest high school-set romantic comedy, “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser,” doesn’t shy away from its many genre predecessors, going so far as to cast a pair of John Hughes regulars — Alan Ruck and Lea Thompson — as the parents of its eponymous heroine (“Stranger Things” breakout Shannon Purser). But while director Ian Samuels’ charming spin on the ever-popular Cyrano de Bergerac story is outfitted with plenty of classic trappings of the genre, it also happily bucks some of the more tired tropes of the rom-com.
For star Purser, the smart subversions that make “Sierra Burgess” such a delight have long been baked into some of her favorites of the genre, so it’s little surprise that they pop up in the actress’ first leading role.
“I didn’t really have a lot of new rom-coms to watch when I was that age,” Purser told IndieWire in a recent interview. “I’m excited to see a new age of rom-coms, and especially teen romantic comedies, because when I was younger, I was watching ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Hunger Games’ and stuff like that. I loved those movies, but they are a little bit heavy. We didn’t really get to have the lighthearted love stories.”
When Purser did get a chance to catch up on the kinds of films that were, as she put it, “a little bit before my time,” she gravitated towards films that feel a bit like “Sierra Burgess”: classic stories with modern touches. A real favorite? “10 Things I Hate About You,” a high school-set retelling of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Like Purser’s film, “10 Things” takes a well-told story and gives it new perspective.
The actress was particularly taken by the role of Kat, played by Julia Stiles, which offered a feminist angle to the genre. “I think she’s clearly so smart and is not looking for a guy to complete her or whatever,” Purser said. “She kind of falls in love on accident, which I love, because she has a lot going on in her life. She’s not sitting around just pining for a boy. I do love those feminist undertones.”
That influence can be felt in “Sierra Burgess,” which doesn’t only focus on Sierra’s budding romance with Jamey (Noah Centineo), but also pays attention to Sierra’s academic pursuits as she approaches the end of high school.
“Obviously, there’s the pressure that Sierra feels to get the boy, but I think there’s also a lot of extraneous difficulties in her life,” she said. “Feeling that she has to live up to her famous father, and that she has to get into a great school and be this super well-rounded idealistic person. And that’s a lot of pressure for young people.”
Sierra’s interest in her post-high school life is understandable, because she’s not exactly having an easy go of it. Things get both worse and better when she starts up a texting correspondence with the cute Jamey, who is under the impression he’s chatting with resident cool girl Veronica (Kristine Froseth).
Once Sierra realizes what’s going on, she enlists Veronica to help keep up her charade. Unlike other high school-set rom-coms, including Netflix’s recent hit “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Veronica gets to be much more than just a vicious mean girl. As Jamey and Sierra get closer over text, so do Veronica and Sierra.
“Obviously at the beginning of the movie they feel like they come from totally different worlds and that there’s nothing that they could possibly have in common,” Purser said. “I love that there’s more than meets the eye about both those characters. … It’s very nice to see girls getting along, because you don’t see a lot of that. And honestly, girls in this political climate need as much support as they can get and especially from other women.”
Like other films of the genre, “Sierra Burgess” builds up to one major event: the high school dance. Proms and homecoming have long served as the final act centerpiece for teen rom-coms, from “Pretty in Pink” to “Never Been Kissed” and plenty in between, but “Sierra Burgess” approaches the dance in a fresh way. Most notably, Sierra doesn’t arrive at the event sporting some wild makeover, a physical manifestation of the “new” Sierra, a played out trope that doesn’t feel real anymore.
“Everybody in the making of the movie was super-conscious of that,” Purser said. “They didn’t want her to be wearing super-heavy makeup at the end, or be suddenly super-stylized. I think that Sierra does look the way that she would look when she’s going to her homecoming, which I really love.”
It’s all part of the overall hope of the movie: that you can grow up, get the guy, find a new best friend, and be your best, all while still being you.
“I think we are very used to [thinking], like, ‘Well, her life just won’t begin until she has that makeover.’ And that’s not the message of the movie,” Purser said. “Everybody really wanted it to be that way. They didn’t want her to be this caricature, somebody who was so unfortunate-looking and then is rescued by a makeover. It was really just about her finding herself and learning to love and accept herself as she was.”
“Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” is currently streaming on Netflix.