Sierra Burgess’ Parents Are Losers

Gen-X Moms and Dads Are The Best, But Netflix Doesn’t Get That

Remember life before smartphones?

Before streaming and sexts?

Those innocent days when teen movies meant Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” and Judge Reinhold’s masturbation fantasies?

If so, you might assume you’ll relate more to the parents than the kids in Sierra Burgess is a Loser, currently streaming on Netflix.

I’m not sure I do.

It’s not just because I spend a lot of time with teenagers and have crystal-clear memories of bringing carrots to school the first day of senior year so my best friend and I could recreate Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s infamous fellatio lesson at lunch.

It’s more the way the parent characters are drawn these days.

Or maybe it’s always been this way, but it took becoming somewhat superfluous myself to notice.

Wow what a loser

A few minutes into Sierra Burgess, when our heroine (Stranger Things’  Shannon Purser) and her parents started serving up some morning repartee in their spacious, oppressively clean kitchen, I knew I was in for a long and cringe-filled evening.

Sierra’s dad (Alan Ruck, Ferris Bueller’s Cameron himself), a famous novelist, is prone to peppering his side of the conversation with unattributed literary quotations that Sierra takes pride in catching. No wonder everyone thinks she’s a loser!!! She’s not just plump! She’s smug about knowing who some dead, old, white guys nobody cares about are!!!

Her anxious, New Age-y mom (Get thee Back to the Future, Lea Thompson!) loads her up with life advice organized into acronyms. Wacky, but well-meaning, right, Sierra? Moms have been uncool since Mrs. Bennett fixated on her daughters’ marriage prospects. Jane Austen. Or doesn’t your dad ever toss you a female author?

This scene reminded me of Dorothy Parker’s review of The House at Pooh Corner. I wanted to fwow up.

Though because I’ve got a soft spot for silly old Pooh, my nausea owes not so much to the cutesy bootsy banter as an opportunity that seems deliberately lost.

I get that parents are minor characters in most teenage comedies, as in most garden-variety middle-class teenaged lives.

I accept that their primary function is to show how little influence they exert over their child’s day-to-day happiness post-5th-grade graduation, which wasn’t a thing when I was a kid, but misplaced teenaged rage was.

I’m not crazy about it in real life, but as a dramatic device it’s capable of some heavy narrative lifting. If Sierra idolizes her dad, it should follow that she resents her dippy, interfering mom, but she doesn’t roll so much as a single eyeball.

What Sierra Burgess gets wrong, comedian Bo Burnham’s excellent directorial debut Eighth Grade gets very right. Kayla’s single dad’s preternatural patience seems a bit too good to be true, but her prickly treatment of him is so painfully real, that we understand her rudeness springs from much more than simple cell phone addiction. Like the abject misery of being the chunky, friendless girl who brings a dud present to the pool party she has no business attending.

A good dad

The long shot of Kayla’s bewildered father crouching uncertainly nearby as she weeps in the space between bed and wall after a harrowing encounter with an older boy speaks volumes to this period of the parental journey.

I may have been rooting for Dad to snarl back, the 20th or so time she unfairly lashed out at him, but I also appreciated the grace of this wordless scene, viewed as if from a keyhole.

It’s totally possible to believe with all our hearts what we tell our kids–that they’re beautiful, smart, funny, kind–while simultaneously fretting that none of the little dumbfucks they go to school with will bother to see or acknowledge it.

For some, the hell extends beyond middle school, though Sierra Burgess, older than Kayla by about four years and sweating her college application, is not quite the “loser” the title of the Netflix film would have us believe.

She’s smart enough to hire herself out as a tutor, which she does, in service of the flimsy plot.

Talented enough to find a place on the school newspaper or literary magazine, assuming those still exist, or in Drama Club. She’s got a great voice and there’s a rich tradition of bulky girls playing matronly middle-aged women in school plays. Instead she plays in the band because…uniforms. She also joins the Boys’ Track team, under the assumption that Stanford’s admissions committee will be impressed with her grit, or activism, or wackiness, or something.  Maybe she’s actually not all that smart.

And unlike Kayla, she’s got a best friend, Dan, played by RJ Cyler with the same confidence and cool he projected in the vastly superior Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. We never learn much about Dan. Does his mettle come from being one of the only black students in evidence at this giant, public high school? Or is he more of a Pippi Longstocking type, quirky and mature because the filmmakers elected not to saddle him with parents?

Sierras nemesis, the icy head cheerleader Veronica, isn’t nearly so lucky. Her single mother (Chrissy Metz) is a cartoon, a deluded, plus-sized control freak, who–oh, cruel irony!–monitors every calorie that goes into her slim teen’s mouth as her bratty younger twins run amok in sequined pageant costumes.

Someone’s trying to have their cake and eat it too, but I refuse to swallow this cinematic horse flop. The Toddlers and Tiaras shorthand is off-putting, whether taken as comedy or as the underlying reason for Veronica’s lightning-fast conversion from top-dog bully to quivering puppy who just wants to be wuvved.

I’m loathe to blame the actors for this mess, so who? Screenwriter Lindsey Beer? Director Ian Samuels? Edmond Rostand? (Beg pardon for having failed to mention ‘til now that the film’s yet another adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac.)

I did enjoy the way Purser and Internet Boyfriend” Noah Centineo embodied the awkward giddiness of two teens realizing that their crush is not one-sided. Technically, at least one of them is mistaken, given the whole catfishing (formerly known as Cyrano) thing, but whatever…

It was a good, if quaint choice to have this courtship reach its fullest flower over the phone, by which I mean talking to, over, and around each other, rather than exchanging text messages the audience will strain to make out on their own tiny devices.

Can I blame my headphones for my weirdly Pavolvian response to the sound of Sierra and her hunky quarterback’s incoming texts?  I kept thinking it was my 18-year-old son checking in. Nope, just another shirtless selfie of Sierra’s movie boyfriend.

The one moment that pleasantly took me by surprise came in the paternal response to Sierra slouching downstairs, hungover from an unchaperoned teen blowout. I’ll bet she, like me, was expecting her dad to take it in stride with some bon mots from Dickens or Wilde on the wildness of youth.

Guess again, sister!

Grounded!

Makes me wonder where things might’ve gone had this character been allowed to find out about his beautiful, funny, smart, kind daughter’s flippant attempt to pass herself off as deaf, because, you know, how else to keep that handsome young football player from recognizing her voice and discovering her true identity?

Would he brush it off as a bit of uninspired mummery on the part of his favorite girl?

Or would he share the Internet’s appalled reaction, spurred by deaf activist’s Nyle DiMarco’s Tweets, and that fact that the child actor cast as the hunky quarterback’s deaf (you heard me) younger brother is deaf in real life?

What’s a parent to do?

Something tells me that Eighth Grade’s writer-director, Bo Burnham, who conceives of his film as a statement on the “pubescent stage”American culture is currently undergoing, could handle the emotional complexities Sierra’s dad would face in this hypothetical situation.

But he’s not the one responsible for this mess.

Fuck me gently with a chainsaw, Sierra Burgess.

Ayun Halliday

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.

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