I went into watching this new Netflix teen flick with high hopes: who doesn't love a feel-good story about romance and unsuspecting friendships?
Sierra Burgess had the iconic formula responsible for the biggest successes in coming-of-age and teenage personal development movies. We had Sierra as the somewhat social outcast, who longs for the football quarterback Jamey, who in turn longs for the head cheerleader Veronica. Veronica is the high school equivalent to a dictator, relentlessly torturing the protagonist Sierra with very little subtlety, and yet her looks are all she has going for her. Seems like an open and shut case on how the story will end—and it is.
The cruel predictability of the character arcs and ending, though, are largely overshadowed by the very troubling implications of the story.
The issue of consent was glossed over quickly in the movie, but not so readily in critique of the film. Many critics already have pointed out the obvious issues with the relationship between Sierra and Jamey: she catfishes him, leading him to believe she is Veronica. She kisses him in lieu of Veronica when he has his eyes closed, which is despicable for the obvious reasons. She lies to him at every single encounter that she has with him. Yet, at the end, she still gets the guy!
What is most troubling to me about the story is beyond the lack of consent and clearly wrongdoing of the protagonist. It is the lack of accountability and consequences. What Sierra does is horribly wrong—manipulative, devious, and conniving—and she still ends the movie with everything working out for her. In fact, before Jamey takes her to homecoming (I don't think I would take my psycho stalker catfish to the dance if it were me, but to each their own), he confronts her. Well, if you can call it that. He says maybe once or twice that what she did was awful, and then explains how he (so graciously) does not care about her looks and likes her for who she is. Well, who is she?
Sierra is not a nice person. For one, when she saw Veronica kiss Jamey before the football game, she does not even extend Veronica the courtesy to explain herself. She goes full throttle and lashes out in a gruesome temper tantrum that involves hacking Veronica's Instagram account and posting a very betraying post. Furthermore, she does not even apologize for her actions, but rather makes excuses on the grounds of feeling insecure. She does not apologize to Jamey for catfishing him, nor to Veronica for hacking her account and betraying her trust. She does not even apologize properly to Dan, the friend that goes largely neglected throughout the whole movie (and don't even get me started on how pointless his character is to the overall story).
Sierra's story is supposed to be one about inner beauty trumping outer beauty, but that is not what we see here. Veronica tells it how it is when she says, "your looks are the least ugly thing about you." The best development arc in the story is actually in Veronica. She begins as hateful and a different kind of insecure—not one that stems from not seeing one's self as beautiful, but rather one that stems from only valuing one's looks and believing they have nothing else to offer. The classic movie trope of the nerdy girl getting a makeover from the popular girl is reversed as Veronica is taught philosophy and basic human decency by Sierra. I must say, I did value the lessons available through watching Veronica's character arc.
If the movie wanted their lesson to really land, though, there are many things they should have done differently. First, Sierra and Jamey could not end up together. Them ending up as a couple sends the message to viewers that it is okay to mistreat people so long as you feel insecure about yourself and it is done in the name of healing. This is an absolutely toxic mindset. Regardless of how Sierra felt about herself, she had no right to catfish Jamey and she had no right to betray Veronica. Frankly, she wasn't even a good friend to Dan. Veronica had no business forgiving Sierra when the latter never even apologized in the first place.
Sierra put Jamey in a tough position: if he did not forgive her, he seemed like the shallow insensitive jerk. If he did forgive her, he was condoning that behaviour and entering into a relationship with someone that clearly had some issues with themselves and how they maintain relationships. Why would anyone want that for themselves? Is it really realistic that someone would forego those reservations for the sake of not seeming like a jerk? I wouldn't. Anyone in their right mind should not. She is clearly evasive of responsibility and downright scheming; not good traits in a girlfriend.
Let me say this one more time for the people in the back: IT IS NOT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO HELP FIX THE INSECURITIES OF OTHERS! IF THEY MISTREAT YOU OR ARE TOXIC IN ANY WAY, YOU ARE NOT A BAD PERSON FOR NOT PUTTING UP WITH IT!!!
The awful plot and message it sends completely obscures the whole "identity crisis" and "figuring out who you are" thing the movie was trying to do. It was a disaster for consent and toxic relationships. Its one redeeming feature was Veronica, whose character arc actually ended with her not in the exact same place at the start. Her end featured her as more or less a social pariah, but the point was that she was happier. For once, we see a character development story that doesn't send the message "be yourself and everybody will like you." The message here is "be yourself and you'll be happier, despite other people. Who cares about other people?" That is a message that I can finally endorse.
My whole point here is to hell with Sierra. Sierra Burgess is a loser, but only because she is not a nice person at all. If you're looking to feel good about this movie, you're going to have to look to Veronica, or just pick a new movie altogether. And on that note, Peter Kavinsky vs. Jamey is not even a debate. I'll take Peter or no Noah at all, thank you very much.