The set of Tall Girl, a movie premiering September 13 on Netflix, was the closest thing its 17-year-old star Ava Michelle got to a typical high school experience.
Michelle was home-schooled, and thus missed out on classic traditions like prom and AP-class meme groups on Facebook (it’s a thing).
So after wrapping Tall Girl’s climactic homecoming scene — practically a teen rom-com requirement — director Nzingha Stewart kept the party going. “She made sure I got my homecoming. We had a whole dance party at the end,” Michelle says in an interview with Refinery29. (Make sure you watch the closing credits.)
Tall Girl follows a year in the life of Jodi Kreyman, 16-year-old teenager made meek by her 6’1” height. She towers over the rest of the girls, and many of the boys, in her New Orleans high school, and lets her difference undermine her confidence. Likely, her insecurities are exacerbated by her sister, Harper (Sabrina Carpenter), a pageant queen who checks every box of feminine beauty standards, and her father, Richie (Stevie Zahn), who talks about Jodi’s height as if it were a birth defect.
When a handsome — and, more importantly, tall — Swedish exchange student magically appears at her school, Jodi’s develops a case of one bad crush. By dating the Skarsgard-esque Stig (Luke Eisner), Jodi might feel a few inches closer to normal in comparison. But in lusting after Stig, Jodi overlooks her friend Dunkleman (Griffin Gluck of American Vandal) as a prospective boyfriend because of his height, the same way others rule her out.
Tall Girl is a charming rom-com with a subversive streak, challenging one of the most lingering taboos in heterosexual dating: Does the girl still have to be smaller than her love interest? From Jodi to Tabitha (Caitlin FitzGerald) in Succession, the answer (onscreen) is slowly becoming “no.”
Michelle, about the same age as Jodi, imbues the role with refreshing naturalism. Even if she wasn’t ever taunted by jocks in high school hallways, Michelle could intimately relate to her character’s experiences. She’s been there.
“I went through all these things. I was like, ‘Is somebody following me around? Because this is actually creepy,’” Michelle says, adding that Stewart went out of her way to consult Jodi, and make sure the “real ‘tall girl’ life was depicted. “I was able to jump into her shoes so easily.”
Stewart was impressed by Michelle's vulnerability. "She was willing to put all the pain, tenderness, and sweetness of it and say, ‘This is what it’s like.’ And show it in her performance," Stewart said in an interview with Refinery29. "
Instead of coming of age in anonymity like Jodi, though, Michelle’s adolescence was broadcast and recorded. For three years, beginning at the age of 10, Michelle was a castmember on Dance Moms, the Lifetime show where mothers competed against one another using their uber-talented, pre-teen dancer daughters. Abby Lee Miller, founder of the Abby Lee Dance Company, was both the show’s ringmaster and pot-stirrer.
Michelle’s height was the subject of scrutiny on Dance Moms and on the internet. “Abby bullied me. People were body-shaming me and tearing me down. It got really bad there, for a second,” Michelle recalls. “Not only was it kids in my school making fun of my height, it was people I didn’t even know. That was one of my lowest points.”
In a particularly cringey moment on Dance Moms, Lee cuts Michelle from the Junior Elite Competition team because of her height. But first, Lee humiliates her. Lee removes Michelle’s dance team jacket and has her stand in front of the dancers and their moms. From that vantage point, Michelle seems particularly tall — though she’s not even close to her current height of 6’1”.
“Ava! You’re too tall for us today! You’re cut,” Lee yells. Lee then suggests she’d be great if she could “get away from her mother.” Michelle chokes down tears and manages a polite, “Thank you for this opportunity.”
After that, Michelle and her mother, Jeanette Cota, were permanently caught in the show’s manufactured drama. Cota and Lee become sworn enemies. Lee refers to Cota as the “stalker woman.” Meanwhile, Cota plans for revenge. “She’s gonna know that she is not allowed to treat young kids that way,” Cota said during a phone call with another mom. When Lee was eventually sentenced to a year in prison for fraud, Cota was openly happy.
After emerging from the experience, Michelle and her mom remain extremely close. “My mom was a huge part in my finding confidence — to stand tall and be myself and embrace it,” Michelle tells Refinery29. Michelle even sang a song about mother-daughter relationships called “ILY” (the video stars her mom).
For Michelle, the negative reception to Tall Girl’s trailer when it dropped on August 29 was a flashback to her Dance Moms days. Many commenters felt Jodi exaggerated the difficulties of being tall, especially compared to other marginalizations. Having passed through the gauntlet of internet scrutiny once, Michelle feels better equipped to handle it now.
“I have gotten a little bit of hate since the trailer came out. But I feel like I’m in such a different place now. It doesn't affect me the way it did when I was younger,” Michelle says, chuckling at the many comments saying she’s not tall enough for the part. “This might be only time I haven’t been called tall enough.”
Michelle is focusing, instead, on a less visible reaction to the trailer: The onslaught of DMs she’s getting from tall girls, saying how happy they are a story like this is coming out.
“People will know what we go through on a different level,” Michelle says. “I really hope that these people who were hating on the movie watch the movie and see what it’s about. And see the stereotypes we broke.”
Ultimately, Michelle hopes Tall Girl opens the door for other taller girls in Hollywood. In the past, Jodi’s height has posed a challenge in auditions because of stereotypes — especially as romantic leads. Maybe Hollywood can embrace height the same way Michelle, and eventually Jodi, do.
“It’s crazy to think that the thing I hated and was always insecure about and wanted to change was one of the reasons that I booked the biggest role in my career,” Michelle says.