Netflix movies Sierra Burgess Is A Loser and The Half Of It both take the play Cyrano de Bergerac and package it as a light-hearted teen movie, following unique approaches to different degrees of success. Sierra Burgess Is A Loser hit the streaming service in 2018, with The Half of It being released on Netflix in May 2020.
Sierra Burgess follows Sierra (Shannon Purser), a smart but unpopular high schooler who finds herself wrapped up in a catfishing scheme when bully Veronica (Kristine Froseth) gives her number to cute football player Jamey (Noah Centineo). Jamey, under the impression he is speaking with Veronica, develops a romantic relationship with Sierra, who eventually turns to Veronica for help with her scheme. Sierra Burgess is a Loser‘s cast is one of its greatest draws. Purser had already proved her star power in the first season of Stranger Things while Centineo was a hot ticket coming off the success of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.
The Half Of It, meanwhile, stars Leah Lewis as Ellie Chu, an introverted high schooler who gets a gig writing love letters from jock Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) to popular girl Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemir). Written and directed by Alice Wu, The Half of It is deeply personal, offering a tangled love triangle that becomes more complicated as the characters’ arcs unfold onscreen. Both movies share a number of similarities – here’s how they compare.
Sierra Burgess is a Loser and The Half of It are both movies based on the play Cyrano de Bergerac, written by Edmond Rostand in 1897. It depicts a story about love, deceit, and beauty. Cyrano is a witty, intelligent man in love with the beautiful Roxane, however, he believes his unusually large nose will prevent her, or any other woman, from loving him back. Roxane turns her attention to the handsome Christian, who worries that his lack of eloquence will cause him to lose her affection. Christian enlists Cyrano to write letters to Roxane on his behalf, causing the leading lady to fall more deeply in love with him, or at least, with her idea of him.
Both movies take the premise of two people courting the same person and adapt it to a high school setting. Sierra Burgess Is A Loser offers Sierra as the Cyrano figure, the intellect behind the beautiful Veronica/Christian. It continues its gender flip by turning Roxane into Jamey. The Half Of It has Paul as its Christian figure, enlisting Ellie/Cyrano to write love letters to his beloved Aster/Roxane. The central conflict at the heart of Cyrano De Bergerac translates well to a high school setting, where tensions are high and conflict looms just beneath the surface.
Sierra Burgess Is A Loser is a modern retelling of the play, with Sierra Burgess instead of Cyrano de Bergerac. Sierra Burgess Is A Loser is to the play what Clueless was to Jane Austen’s Emma, more or less following its original plot beats, deviating only to modernize or match genre needs.
One of the ways this parallelism is most evident is in the infamous kiss scene. Act III of the play, “Roxane’s Kiss,” sees Cyrano stealing a kiss from Roxane under the guise of darkness. Sierra Burgess Is A Loser evokes this by having Sierra switch with Veronica when Jamey closes his eyes for a kiss at the end of a date. The play also borrows from the more tense relationship between Christian and Cyrano by having Sierra and Veronica start the film as antagonists. Like Christian and Cyrano, what holds them together is a mutual benefit: Sierra wants to seem beautiful to Jamey; Veronica wants to seem more intelligent after being dumped by her college boyfriend.
Netflix’s The Half Of It is more loosely inspired by the play. It keeps closer to the narrative in some ways; where Sierra and Veronica are in love with different people, Ellie and Paul both pine for Aster. However, the movie mostly uses the narrative as a jumping off point to discuss broader themes around immigration, growing up queer in an intolerant environment, and developing the self-confidence to push the boundaries of a comfort zones.
Where Sierra Burgess Is A Loser falls flat in terms of character development and relationships, these are the bread and butter of The Half Of It. Being a more faithful adaptation is not necessarily a positive attribute. The kiss scene, which is barely forgivable in the context of 19th century play, becomes downright problematic in a contemporary setting in which consent is a major cultural concern.
Netflix’s The Half Of It adapts some of the play’s themes more completely thanks to its better developed character relationships. Like in the play, Ellie and Aster actually have a relationship outside the letters. Sierra doesn’t even know Jamey when he first texts her. For a movie about rejecting societal conventions of beauty, it’s ironic that Sierra chooses to start her catfishing adventure because she sees a photograph of Jamey and thinks he’s cute. The Half Of It also explores the theme of friendship in Paul and Ellie’s relationship, allowing their connection to grow organically. Meanwhile, Sierra is a pretty bad friend to both Dan (RJ Cyler), who she only seems interested in when she needs something, and eventually Veronica, who she betrays on a whim.
Sierra Burgess Is A Loser sticks to rom-com convention by offering a happy ending where the girl gets the guy. The ending of Cyrano De Bergerac is more bittersweet. Christian dies, but Cyrano chooses to keep his involvement in writing the letters secret to preserve Roxane’s memory of her love. She only finds out the truth when Cyrano dies. This selflessness of character is not present in Sierra, who spends most of the movie pushing the people around her to get what she wants. But, it is a major cornerstone of Ellie, who at 13 started working the at the train station to help her dad during a mental health crisis. The Half Of It also offers a bittersweet end; Ellie manages to kiss the girl, but it is on her last day in town. As she declares at the beginning of the movie, this is not a love story where people get what they want. She has two opposing interests: she wants to be with Aster and she wants to move on from the small town of Squahamish. To choose one, she must eschew the other. The Half Of It doesn’t shy away from complex emotions, evident in its willingness to tackle heavier themes like racism, homophobia, grief, depression, and immigration.
Purser puts on a good performance, but, on the whole, Sierra is quite an unlikeable character. She is incredibly selfish, arrogant, and manipulative. When she catches Jamey kissing Veronica, who he thinks he is dating due to Sierra’s machinations, she immediately jumps to a false sense of betrayal. Her reaction, to share private information about Veronica with the entire school, is completely out of proportion and pretty unforgivable. Ellie, on the other hand, falls more into the shy, “too good for her present situation” type. Her lack of faith in her ability to transcend her current situation gives her room to evolve as a character. Her friendship with Paul grows to be extremely caring; she supports him in his culinary ambitions while he becomes one of her first allies in town.
The difference in complexity of protagonist can best be highlighted in the way each film uses song. Sierra sings “Sunflower” at the end of the movie. It is a pretty song, but it cheapens her apology about her deception; instead, she turns the moment of her retribution into an opportunity to continue to demand pity. Meanwhile, Ellie plays her self-written song at the mid-point of the movie, at a talent show before the whole school. The song is a catalyst for her to begin having the faith in herself; it is the first time her classmates show her any respect. It is a character moment that comes deserved; Ellie spends so much of the film hiding behind letters not signed in her name and at the back of the church playing the organ, it is satisfying when she is finally given the spotlight. Moreover, her apology scene carries more weight because she doesn’t try to make excuses, offering a sincere, heartfelt apology to Aster.
Ellie and Aster’s relationship is far more compelling than Sierra and Jamey’s because it too is better developed. They share common interests and learn to be emotionally open with each other, both in the letters when Aster thinks Ellie is Paul, and in person when they share a private moment together. Sierra and Jamey’s relationship, on the other hand, never seems to move past the superficial. They share cute animal pictures and ask each other basic questions about their lives. None of their conversations move past what would count as first date material or even, arguably, what marks the start of any relationship, romantic or platonic. Where Netflix‘s The Half Of It goes deep, in character development, in relationships, in theme, Sierra Burgess Is A Loser strides an awkward middle ground between wanting to offer a thoughtful assessment of beauty culture and wanting to offer a light-hearted teen romp.