You may have heard of Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, the Netflix film featuring an insecure teenager who uses social media and a fake identity to gain the attention of the boy she likes. Sounds a lot like catfishing, doesn't it? That's because that's exactly the ploy Sierra orchestrates in the story, which understandably drew a lot of flak from viewers and critics alike. However, whatever the movie misses with the questionable way it handled its premise, it makes up for in its attempt to highlight the importance of body positivity.
The titular star of Sierra Burgess, 21-year-old Shannon Purser regards the movie as something deeply personal to her having struggled with her own insecurities just as Sierra had. But despite her connection to the story, Shannon admits to not quite agreeing with its ending. "Her actions are wrong and there are consequences," Shannon says. "They both do choose to forgive Sierra, which is a choice that I’m not sure I’d make, but not before Sierra confronts her inner demons and recognizes her mistakes." With the disillusionment that social media brings to our self-esteem, the actress then hopes that viewers don't simply take its sentimental resolution at face value.
Below, Shannon talks more to Preview about subverting female stereotypes, her continuing struggles with her own body, and how she built her chemistry with co-star Noah Centineo.
How did you hear about the film and what was the casting process like?
"I heard about the film a few months before they started casting. When they finally did, I read through it again and liked that it was a story about a complex character and the pressures of growing up. I auditioned several times for the part and had a chemistry read with RJ Cyler, who plays Dan. And then I got the part!"
Did you, in any way, resonate with your character in real life?
"I definitely know what it’s like to feel [like I'm] not good enough and to wonder if I’ll ever be loved for who I am. Sierra feels so much pressure to be good at everything and to not show weakness, even when she is weak. I can relate to that. I also relate to her issues with her body, because I’ve been insecure about my looks for most of my life."
A big part of the movie centers on the friendship between Veronica and Sierra. What did you think about their dynamic in the story?
"I like Sierra and Veronica’s storyline because at the beginning they think they have nothing in common, when in reality, they’re both very insecure people who want to be loved and validated. They both mess up and do some pretty awful things. But in the end, they both see each other for who they are. The two of them subvert the stereotypes that are set in place for them, which I found interesting."
Considering you spent a lot of your screentime with Noah's character through text or on the phone, how were you two able to work on your chemistry?
"Well, Noah is very sweet and charming so it was easy to have chemistry with him. But it helped that he was actually on the other line when we were talking on the phone. It was great getting to actually hear his voice and work off of that."
How vital was it for you to be part of a movie about body positivity and self-confidence? And why do you think is it important to make a movie about it now?
"I have struggled with body positivity and self esteem since I was a kid. I think it’s so important to show that you don’t need to change or hide who you are to be worthy of love. And I think that’s especially important now with social media, which makes it that much easier to compare ourselves with each other."
Living in a youth-driven digital age swamped by social media, do you think the story was able to address the problem of catfishing that the film sets its premise on?
"The movie is a cautionary tale about how easy it is to let our insecurities make us desperate enough to make bad choices. Veronica and Sierra are both trying to win someone’s attention and so they team up in a scheme that is very wrong and hurtful. And then Sierra goes on to really hurt Veronica. Her actions are wrong and there are consequences. She loses the trust and friendship of Veronica and Jamey. They both do choose to forgive Sierra, which is a choice that I’m not sure I’d make, but not before Sierra confronts her inner demons and recognizes her mistakes. I hope people will watch this movie and recognize how important it is to be honest and love yourself for who you are."