Tall Girl opens with a familiar sequence: A beautiful blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl peeks over the top of her book at an equally handsome classmate. They lock eyes to the tune of Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel,” shyly smiling as they acknowledge their attraction. A flirty conversation about A Confederacy of Dunces follows — next stop, the ask out. But then, the girl stands, and the twist is revealed: She’s very tall! The boy panics, and leaves her in the lurch, as she sighs. Unfortunately, she’s used to this.
It’s a cute conceit for a rom-com. Or, at least, it would be, if Tall Girl weren’t so lacking in self-awareness. In the weeks before its September 13 Netflix release, the film has been plagued with social media backlash as people took issue with the portrayal of an otherwise thin, white, affluent young woman as a victim of discrimination.
A movie about a niche set of teen problems isn’t a setback in and of itself. Not everything has to be a crusade for social justice. But there is a difference between a film that takes no stance at all, and one that takes one by accident.
Ultimately though, the issue with Tall Girl isn’t so much what it says, but how it says it. The Tall Girl in question is Jodi (Ava Michelle), a young woman struggling with body issues related to her size. The kids at school — save for best friends Fareeda (Anjelika Washington, who should really be carrying a movie of her own) and Dunkelman (a charming Griffin Gluck) — constantly taunt her about her height, and her parents aren’t much better. Her father (Steve Zahn) is particularly unhelpful, going as far as to suggest hormone therapy for his 3-year-old daughter to stunt her growth in a flashback. And it doesn’t help that her older sister Harper (Sabrina Carpenter) is a professional beauty queen, a handy foil everyone can compare Jodi to. All in all, Jodi’s unhappy and not optimistic about the future. That changes, however, with the arrival of Stig (Luke Eisner), a Swedish exchange student whose just as tall and blonde as she is! Could he be the solution to her woes?
No one is denying that being exceptionally tall in high school can be alienating. Speaking as the tall girl of College Marie de France’s class of 2006, I can confirm that it deeply sucks at times. (I wasn’t as tall as Jodi, but I was also fat, and I’ll let you decide which of those things made life more difficult.) But it’s not the worst fate ever to befall anyone in the history of the Earth — or like, even in the past week, given the destructive path of Hurricane Dorian — even if that’s how it seems from Jodi’s perspective.
In our current socio-political context, where marginalized teens across communities are dealing with life-threatening situations, lines like, “You think your life is hard? I’m a high school junior wearing size 13 Nikes. Men’s size 13 Nikes. Beat that,” land as tone-deaf and cringe-worthy coming from a white, affluent young lady, who otherwise meets all mainstream Western standards of beauty. (You say tall, I say model.)
One could argue that to be a teenager is to navel-gaze. But that too, seems off. One of the significant characteristics that separate Gen Z from the generations that came before is that they do care about the world around them. They’re aware of social and economic injustice, and strive for inclusivity. In the grand scheme of things, being 6’1.5, isn’t so much a grand affliction so much as an inconvenience. Couple all of that with Netflix’s recent cancelling spree, which resulted in the streaming service pulling the plug on some of its most diverse programming, and it’s clear why this movie might strike a nerve.
And yet, in its own way, Tall Girl is subversive. Directed by Nzingha Stewart, a frequent Shonda Rimes collaborator, it’s a mainstream movie helmed by a woman of color. In an interview with Variety in 2018, Stewart shared her ongoing struggle to find directing opportunities, despite her success on shows like Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and How To Get Away With Murder. “Every major director who’s African-American — from Ava [DuVernay] to Spike Lee to Ryan Coogler, all of them — they had to write their first movies because wasn’t nobody trying to hire them,” she said.
Work begets work. A Netflix original film represents a potential stepping stone towards even more high-profile projects. And on the whole, Tall Girl is almost engaging enough to overcome its weak script, courtesy of Sam Wolfson. The performances are endearing, in keeping with Netflix’s growing roster of teen comedies like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, and the ending is particularly sweet, and even unexpected, addressing a taboo that we still don’t often see depicted on-screen. On the whole, it's a charming movie about the mental toll of insecurity that also has major blind spots.
Last week, critic Mark Harris tweeted an interesting question: “If a movie is a step forward in terms of representation but also utterly mediocre, IS it a step forward?” He wasn’t specifically referring to Tall Girl, but it’s an idea I often myself grappling with. Does all work by underrepresented filmmakers have to be perfect to be celebrated? Isn’t that the kind of unreachable threshold of excellence we’re trying to avoid as we strive for more diversity in Hollywood? In a perfect world, everyone would be free to make great art, but also bad art. Tall Girl falls somewhere in between.