‘Sierra Burgess Is a Loser’ Is Either Going to Be Excellent or an Absolute Trainwreck

Will it be a genuine coming-of-age story about beauty, or a shallow comedy about a fat high school girl?
July 16, 2018
4 mins read

“Stranger Things” fans rejoice, because Barb is back. But this time, she’s back as Shannon Purser’s latest role, Sierra Burgess, a smart girl who doesn’t fit (though she almost does) her high school’s definition of beauty.

The trailer for the movie dropped on Thursday, and it’s gotten some mixed reactions. On one hand, the story seems to be based on catfishing — Sierra meets her male love interest over text, and he mistakes her for someone else.

The focus of the story, though, is clearly on looks and what they mean for a teenager. In the short trailer, there’s a lot of discussion about looks. At the opening, Purser asks in a voiceover: “Do you ever feel sometimes like the one teenager who doesn’t obsess over looks?”

It’s a nod to her fatness, at least by Hollywood standards, and it clearly sets up one of the primary contradictions of the film.

Later in the trailer Sierra asks, “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a teenage girl and to look like this?” pointing to perhaps a change from the opening question. It’s the first prickle of the sense that Sierra may not be that self-aware.

She’s not obsessed with looks in the same way her classmates are, but she is still obsessed. And most smart teenagers are at least that self-aware: this contradiction is a danger spot for the film.

The audience knows that Sierra’s looks will be a big issue in the film — which makes sense, especially over the flimsy “I-want-to-go-to-Stanford” plot introduced in the beginning of the trailer.

But filmmakers need to acknowledge two things if this movie is going to be good: First, they need to really reckon with the idea of fatness and unconventional beauty. There’s a lot of reading to be done on this subject, and of the very little media that sympathetically deals with fatness, many of them get it wrong because creators simply don’t thoughtfully portray the experience.

The other thing directors should consider is that the story presented in the trailer is the best-case scenario for a person who “looks like this.” Sadly, in many households, children face put-downs about their weight at an even greater pace from their parents than they might from friends and classmates.

This isn’t to say girls like Sierra have it easy — but it does mean that maybe the tagline “just be you” doesn’t work for everyone.

There are however, moments in the trailer that showcase the film’s potential to be genuine; one is what appears to be the growth of a friendship between Sierra (Purser) and “cool girl” Veronica (Kristine Froseth) for whom Sierra is being mistaken for over text.

Portraying both of those characters with depth would prove that movies have the capability to show girls interacting sans shallow stereotyping created by teen movie after teen movie.

So, perhaps the content of “Sierra Burgess” is a bit of a minefield — it’s a coming-of-age/find-yourself film that toys with some high school problems as well as catfishing, kind of.

It can definitely be the rare film that sensitively portrays a fat high school girl, but it also might be the kind that doesn’t see teenagers as self-aware, and portrays fat girls as manipulators who are desperate and … well, for lack of a better word, losers.

Karena Landler, Georgetown University

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Karena Landler

Georgetown University
English, French

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