The mistaken-identity romance of “Cyrano de Bergerac” gets an update through modern teenage longing in “Sierra Burgess is a Loser,” the latest addition to Netflix’s lineup of movie rom-coms. Mostly, the film serves as a fine showcase for “Stranger Things” alum Shannon Purser – there the much-lamented Barb, here the brainy but self-conscious girl who falls for a high-school quarterback.
Granted, Cyrano didn’t have quite the same tools at his disposal in wooing (and deceiving) Roxanne, what with text messages and phone calls and other electronic means of catfishing – a term that sounds jarring when it’s invoked during the film, which doesn’t make the characterization any less accurate.
Still, the basic formula is much the same, as the socially awkward Sierra (Purser) – who hopes to attend Stanford – stumbles into her exchanges with Jamey (Noah Centineo) after Veronica (Kristine Froseth), a popular cheerleader, cruelly gives him Sierra’s phone number instead of her own.
Thinking he’s talking to Veronica, Jamey and Sierra engage in a long series of meaningful exchanges, first via text, later by phone. Sustaining the ruse eventually brings Veronica and Sierra together, at first in a symbiotic manner – Sierra provides tutoring services in exchange for helping maintain the charade – and gradually in what becomes an unlikely friendship that’s actually more satisfying than the romance.
This is, of course, about the gazillionth retelling of this story, which has been modernized and gender-switched in every imaginable way. Here, at least, Sierra has someone to confide in regarding her increasingly frazzled deception, in the form of a best pal played by RJ Cyler (“I’m Dying Up Here”).
Still, there’s something highly durable about the insecurity that drove Cyrano, and now Sierra, to hide behind another person’s more conventionally pleasing visage, and Purser brings both innate likability and real vulnerability to a role that captures the sensitivity associated with those confusing teen years.
“Sierra Burgess” adds a few clever twists, including the casting of the (relatively minor) adult roles, among them Lea Thompson, Alan Ruck and Chrissy Metz.
This being a romantic comedy, it gives little away to note that most everyone will end up better off, after an appropriate amount of angst and tears.
At one point Jamey asks Sierra – again, still thinking she’s Veronica – if she has “any dark secrets I should know about.” It’s no secret why Netflix has made romantic comedies and teen-oriented programming key components of its evolving movie strategy, reflecting the service’s demographic calculation to keep subscribers happy by catering to different constituencies.
These movies aren’t intended to break any new ground – indeed, the whole point is to recycle an old genre. But graded strictly based on that modest curve, “Sierra Burgess” is a winner.
“Sierra Burgess is a Loser” premieres Sept. 7 on Netflix.