I’m always down for a body-positivity movie. When Friday night rolls around, and I cozy up in socks and sweats to munch popcorn and chill, I don’t want an art film. I don’t want a movie to make me think too hard or feel obliged to appreciate the perfect combination of reality and pain. I want a mildly funny script and a dependably heart-warming plot. So when I came across Netflix’s newest high school Rom-Com, “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser,” it screamed Friday night perfection. Fat chick gets the guy with her sparkling wit and crazy-confidence? Bring it on. You go girl.
The first quarter of the film seems to be the typical teenage drama. When the mean, pretty girl, Veronica, gives the hot quarterback, Jamey, Sierra’s phone number as a prank, Sierra finds herself in a text-relationship with a boy who thinks she looks like the hottest girl at school. Afraid to lose McHandsome’s interest, Sierra gets Veronica to exchange pictures and Facetime calls for tutoring lessons, thereby keeping up the ruse that Jamey is texting both the mind of a genius and the face of an angel. Sierra gets to keep up appearances for her love interest, while Veronica gets to impress the college boys she so desperately wants to please. As Sierra and Veronica work together and learn more about one another’s backgrounds, their animosity melts away. Sierra sees Veronica’s more humanizing sides and Veronica learns to appreciate Sierra’s intelligence and courage. Hope for true, John Hughes-worthy friendship blossoms in the viewer’s heart.
Here is where my Breakfast Club visions of character growth and broken status-quo relationships rose to heights unattainable. Sierra begins to see into Veronica’s world and discovers humanizing pain. Perfectly beautiful Veronica lives in squalor in the bad part of town with a bitter mom and two out-of-control little sisters. With no male figure in the home, Veronica desperately looks for security and identity in relationships with older boys at college parties. Sierra goes to one such party with her and gets an eye-full of the kinds of pressures Veronica faces. Sierra hears Veronica’s ex-boyfriend tell his pal about his plan to verbally abuse Veronica so she will feel demoralized and eager to prove herself sexually.
Now I imagined this episode would end with the confident Sierra taking Veronica home and telling her encouraging things about her real value — Sierra, after all, comes from a loving family who encourage her to think of herself as more than an outward appearance. Instead, Sierra gets held upside down drinking beer from a keg straw, and Veronica ends up in the parking lot with her mean ex-boyfriend, getting borderline assaulted.
At this point in the film, we have tapped into a whole new bundle of issues. What once was a body-positivity movie has moved into the dark and choppy waters of abuse. The movie gets too real and then opts out of saying something deep. Where the film opened the door for some real character growth and healing, it reintroduces the boyfriend drama and we spend the rest of the film propping up Sierra’s body-consciousness.
At the climactic moment of the film, Sierra gets jealous about Veronica’s obvious attraction to Jamey. In a cruel act of jealousy, Sierra broadcasts pictures of Veronica slutting it up with her college boyfriend — pictures Veronica had told Sierra about in a moment of vulnerability and trust. Veronica is horrified that something so demoralizing and abusive would be publicized and that the new friend she confided in would turn on her so cruelly. It’s the typical set up: geek gets back at cool kid, but realizes that revenge is really not that sweet once you know your enemy’s human side.
At this point, my popcorn is long gone, but I keep watching because there’s still the chance that Sierra is going to apologize and make things right.
Sierra has just completely failed as a friend. Here is where we need penitence, character growth, and heart-warming forgiveness. We need Sierra to get over the aesthetic differences between herself and Veronica, recognizing their mutual need for tenderness as well as her greater ability to offer it as she comes from a healthy home. If the movie had succeeded in this, it would have offered a simplistic message of the value of friendship. But the film failed to deliver even true friendship, adhering instead to the “love yourself” message of every modern pop song ever.
After ruining Veronica’s public image, Sierra goes home crying and writes a song out of the deep creative well of self-pity inside herself. The refrain of the song goes:
Rose girls in glass vases
Perfect bodies, perfect faces
They all belong in magazines
Those girls the boys are chasing
Winning all the games they’re playing
They’re always in a different league
Stretching toward the sky like I don’t care
Wishing you could see me standing there
But I’m a sunflower, a little funny
If I were a rose, maybe you’d want me.
Sierra’s artistic breakthrough just proves to us that she hasn’t made any progress at all. She’s as self-absorbed as ever. Instead of writing the “I’m sorry I ruined your life because I’m so selfish” song, Sierra sends Veronica this trash, and Veronica accepts it like it’s a perfect excuse and forgives her.
While the film pushes the “love yourself” line, we end up with a character who uses her weight as a good excuse to be a horrible friend without suffering consequences.
By the end of the song, I wanted to shriek: Who cares what variety of flower you are if you can’t see the needs of the people around you? We are supposed to celebrate Sierra in all her chunky glory, but how am I supposed to feel when Sierra Burgess, who is actually not as unattractive as she makes herself out to be, completely lacks the self-awareness to have compassion on her suffering friend? How am I supposed to empathize with a protagonist who is too fixated on aesthetics to reach out to her friend suffering abuse and neglect? I no longer feel validated and affirmed by Sierra’s body positivity. I now feel kind of icky that I am supposed to be in her corner when she is such a terrible friend.
Overall, I thought the movie was sad, and based on the happy music, tearful hugs, and hand-holding, I don’t think that’s what I was supposed to take away from the film.
Sierra Burgess is a loser, and not because she’s even mildly ugly. (She has perfect skin and beautiful hair and I don’t really see the problem with her young self except that, like most 18-year-olds, she’s selfish and ungrateful.) Sierra Burgess only has eyes for herself. She uses the pretty chick shamelessly, and the viewer is expected to pity her, laud her courage, and boost her ego, cheering when she lands McDreamy.
This movie was not the corn I wanted, but neither was it capable of executing real-talks it tried to bring up throughout the film.