In Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, a twist on Cyrano de Bergerac, a brainy, unpopular girl (Shannon Purser) poses as the popular cheerleader she tutors to catfish a jock. Jamey (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’s Noah Centineo) thinks he’s texting Veronica (Kristine Froseth), but it’s actually Sierra typing witty replies to his compliments. Not every romantic comedy can pull off extended scenes of thumb-to-thumb communication, but Sierra Burgess makes its texting scenes warm and appealing: The anguish of sending a risky one-liner or waiting for a text back feels romantic and anxious and tangible.
To make the texting scenes work, Sierra Burgess director Ian Samuels knew he didn’t want to go for the usual style of having the lines superimposed onscreen. “Part of it was that we’ve seen it so much,” he says. “But also I wanted the experience of watching Shannon text Noah feel as visceral and real as possible, and I was afraid that if you pop text onto the screen it might take you out of the moment.” The way Sierra Burgess shows its leads typing out earnest, flirtatious texts or exchanging silent, awkward “hahas” and animal pics is sweeter than its catfishing conceit deserves. The movie takes its time to show the writing and rewriting required for a simple “Wanna talk on the phone?” text, or the way reading a compliment can leave both teens embarrassed enough to bashfully toss their phones across the bed.
That’s what Samuels liked best about the script, which initially had more scenes and set pieces, befitting a bigger studio movie: “I think there’s such an interesting layer when you’re communicating through texting, or on the phone, because it’s all about curating who you are: censoring yourself, rehearsing, and editing,” he says. “You see all the layers of insecurity that you don’t see when two people are face-to-face as clearly, and that was fun to pull out.”
Getting these sequences right was a combination of casting and choreography. Purser and Centineo had the chemistry of a believable couple — “You had to root for them to be together because it’s a balancing act to pull off the catfishing,” Samuels says — but they could also individually act opposite a screen partner that was just a glowing cell phone. “I was excited about Noah’s playfulness,” the director says. “I knew that when we were shooting the scenes from the phone that he would be able to go with the sort of giddy immediacy I wanted in Shannon’s idiosyncratic reactions. All the behavioral gestures and facial expressions that you make when you’re on your phone — that was what was going to sell those moments.” Samuels says Purser and Centineo were also texting and talking on the phone in real time, though the cell-phone displays were substituted in during postproduction: “I would actually make Noah wait for a response and see if he’d get anxious why Shannon wasn’t responding.”
As the movie cuts back and forth between Jamey’s texts and Sierra’s responses, the actors’ movements were choreographed in tandem. They’re sitting in different rooms, nervous for different reasons — Sierra is being herself, but using Veronica’s name; Jamey is adorably trying not to screw it up — but the frame balances out their reactions. “Even though Shannon and Noah are in two different spaces, it almost looks like they’re looking at each other, and I think that helps,” Samuels says. “When one moves, the other one shifts, so it feels like they’re in the same room together, that they’re vibing on the same impulses to move or to reposition.”
Whether Sierra Burgess redeems its catfishing trope is debatable, but it shows how texting can enrich a modern romance while making it feel real and current. (None of Nora Ephron’s stars never had to worry about texting back too fast!) The texting scenes ended up being Samuels favorite: “It definitely could have been cold, considering they’re not in the room together,” he says. “[Texting is] so suspenseful to me, and I love how it came out.”