By Robyn Dudic (Innsbruck, Tyrol, Austria)
Netflix recently recommended me watching their new Original, they had added to their online-repertoire: Sierra Burgess Is a Loser (2018) directed by Ian Samuels. Knowing already that Netflix Originals usually appeal to audience entertainment rather than high-quality dramaturgy, I decided to give it a try. However, this movie was even low-quality for Original-standards. Neither are the actors bad or the jokes too flat – it is the rawness of the plot, the underdevelopment of the story on all ends, as well as stereotypical representations that account for the movie’s low quality. Not only is the story trying to imitate a typical cliché popular-mean-school-princes-helps-underdog-get-hot-boy story; but, it also fails to do even that well.
The character of Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser), the film’s apparent heroine, is the one that is the most questionable, not only in terms of the movie itself, but also concerning the message it puts across to the viewers. It is her that we should understand, show empathy for, since she had been the one “suffering” from her looks all her life, feeling like a “loser”. Her periodically powerful and audacious replies to her rival, Veronica (Kristine Froseth), shall either give the viewer power and strength when she, and yes, we can most definitely talk about a young female target-audience, might suffer from bullying and little self-confidence.
Or we should simply feel empathy for the braveness of Sierra in her attempts to just come by. Several points have to be made here. First of all, the animosity between the two girls is not well-established – it’s maybe three encounters, three scenes that should portray the circumstances being like that in other mean-girls movies; however, lacking both background knowledge and any explanation why it is just Sierra that Vicky is hostile against, this rivalry feels foundationless and rather arbitrary.
Other films of the like at least show how the mean girls are mean to everyone, but here it is just our “heroine”. Secondly, the choice of this alleged heroine, and why I say alleged, I will explain further on, should give the film an innovative and progressive, pro-feminist flair, since the character is not one that does fit in society’s beauty ideal but only shows lack in style and taste, but one that wants to appear empowering to the audience by not being the typical beauty. It is probably this choice of character that legitimizes the plot’s resolution – a resolution that hides its actual unacceptability behind an oh-she-is-so-poor-because-of-her-looks-so-it’s-okay attitude.
And by doing this, the movie does not enhance the perception that beauty and outer looks do not matter and that humans should be treated alike, no matter what they look like, but it presents “bad looks” as a disability that has to be taken into account when evaluating the character’s actions. In an attempt to promote sameness, the movie stresses difference. And the worst of all is that it is this effort to appear feminist that is the film’s self-appointed label. This shallowness and ignorance that almost seem hypocritical is a total embodiment of the mean-girl figure this Netflix-Original initially tried to undermine. We, and the characters, forgive Sierra easily because of her “ill-fate”, ignore her selfish-ness and self-centeredness, accept minor apologies, while it is her that shows the least beautiful personality.
One could argue this is because she may be portrayed as the only complex character, showing that a person shows multiple facets and does not simply be either good or bad. However, there are two main counter-arguments for this: Firstly, Sierra’s “punishment” for Victoria’s alleged betrayal are unproportional, considering the fact that basically everything worked according to her plot. Secondly, Victoria, as well, is portrayed as having depth, showing that all that appears great to the outer world does not necessarily mean that a person is happy. She has a hard life even though she is pretty. And it is her that shows the most heroic behaviour – being under society’s pressure, captured in a system where she has to be mean, she makes the greatest sacrifices and lives up to the values of friendship.
The only “wrong” thing she did was being mean in the beginning of the play – a minor thing compared to Sierra’s behaviour. However, Victoria’s “background” is displayed in poor fashion – not only is I predictable for the viewer, but it is not sufficiently elaborated upon. There are so many instances in this movie, where the plot just shows the tip of the tip of the iceberg – loose dots, that lack foundation and connection – an attempted linear story that seems heavily disruptive. Most of the background knowledge and information about the plot has to live in the audience’s imagination, since it is not explained on the screen.
It is the movie’s appeal to clichés and stereotypes that ensures its existence, and of course, this is problematic, as well. Victoria is popular and blond; therefore, she must be dumb and of course must be the only African American girl rap in poetry class, ending up the embodiment of what is “expected” from African Americans (similar to Franklin Armstrong in Peanuts). And interesting to note here – Sierra was scolded for submitting a song instead of a poem, whereas the girl was allowed to do so just because, what, she is black? Again, attempted sameness resulting in difference. As well as the enhancing and reinforcing of stereotypes by portrayal and repetition of stereotypical images.
The list of underdeveloped ends that Sierra Burgess Is a Loser (2018) contains could go on and on. Which is a rather accurate conclusion of the movie – one does not even know where to start and where to end with one’s critique. And this is what makes this movie not even really entertaining – the major charm that makes us watch Netflix-Originals. It does really appear as if the movie was produced in minimum time. Maybe Netflix should invest more of that in order to provide quality instead of quantity.