This week, we gave our group of interns a challenge: pick a movie from the past decade that didn’t seem like it was for you, so you didn’t see it. Watch that movie and review it. You can find all of their reviews on the Projects page.
“You think your life is hard?” narrates Jodi (Ava Michelle) as she towers over a high school hallway in Tall Girl. “I’m a high school junior wearing size 13 Nikes.” While the sentiment of Nzingha Stewart’s high school rom-com is a sincere testament to feeling comfortable in your own skin, the execution is laughably awful. Pain is relative, but Tall Girl treats Jodi’s height as if it were the end-all, be-all struggle of high school. There are obviously people with lives harder than size 13 Nikes — size 14, to start.
A feeling familiar to almost anyone who was a teenager: Jodi is uncomfortable with her body. Specifically, she’s very tall. Her height is apparently so gargantuan that she’s been labeled the tall girl. Though her family has tried to provide her some sense of normalcy — at a young age, they even attempted to stunt her growth — she still feels disconnected from their average-height life. When a tall boy named Stig (Luke Eisner) transfers from Sweden, she thinks she may have found someone who will finally understand her pain. But it’s no use; all the popular girls are after him, and Jodi’s still just the tall girl.
One of Jodi’s biggest bullies is Kimmy (Clara Wilsey), a queen bee who took to picking on Jodi from a young age. We see their history in a montage of Kimmy, from preschool to the present day, making fun of Jodi’s height. There’s never really an explanation for this. No exploration of potential inner-jealousy or her own insecurities. Apparently, Kimmy is just extremely mean-spirited. And of course, she’s after Stig as well. The boy really likes Jodi, but he’s pulled into dating Kimmy because he’s obsessed with her popularity.
Stig can’t help the feelings he has for Jodi, but it’s unclear as to why he likes her. There’s no chemistry between them. Nor any sort of love-hate relationship that works for other teen rom-coms, either. The two play the piano together once, and that’s about it for the romantic build-up. One of the reasons Stig is so into Jodi seems to be that she’s insecure, and he can make her feel good about herself.
The main issue with Tall Girl, though, is that it’s incredibly difficult to feel any sympathy for Jodi. Blonde white girls measuring 6’1’’ aren’t really an oppressed group, so the mere suggestion that Jodi’s life could be so hard is foolish. She lives in a mansion, with supportive parents (Angela Kinsey and Greg Kahn) and a friendly older sister (Sabrina Carpenter). She also has no real personality traits. Tall Girl treats height like it’s one, and it’s Jodi’s biggest and possibly her only characteristic.
Ava Michelle is not to blame for this lack of characterization — writer Sam Wolfson must take responsibility for this, as well as for the rest of the painful script. A lot of the characters have potential, especially given the invigorating cast, including Kinsey and Kahn as the worrywart parents. Jodi’s best friend Fareeda (Anjelika Washington) steals every scene she’s in, but we never learn more about her other than her love of dancing. The potential for this ensemble to create a refreshing high school rom-com is squashed by overdone dialogue and an unbelievable plot.
There’s also one big thing missing from almost the entirety of Tall Girl: social media. If there’s one thing that dominates self-perception in high school nowadays, it’s all the photo-obsessed apps. Without any mention or handling of the topic, the film is out-of-touch with the times. All of Jodi’s interactions with her peers are via comments made in passing. There’s only one bit in which Jodi receives a prank call and we get a quick taste of bullying in the digital age. Most of today’s high school films (and even now middle school movies like Eighth Grade) show the peaks and pitfalls of social media. Tall Girl barely mentions it, as if the entire thing was too daunting a task to undertake.
Stewart’s work as a director does add some fun flair to the film, employing a wide range of camera angles that help to bring life to Jodi’s dull character. Paired with Wolfson’s script, though, the style only accentuates the poor writing. Take a fight that Jodi has with her family over dinner: Stewart attempts to enliven the scene by shooting Jodi and her father from a worm’s eye view. But with yet another stale discussion of Jodi’s height, the technique lacks motive other than to serve as a distraction from the film’s flaws. There’s no reason for a variety of shots when the conversation topic is always the same.
The plot is so focused on Jodi’s height alone that the film never feels real. Does it need to? Tall Girl may just be a minor diversion made for teenagers, but Netflix has proven its strength in releasing widely appealing content featuring a younger ensemble. Tall Girl is nowhere near the level of such titles as To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, The End of the F***ing World, or Stranger Things, which makes it a disappointment for general subscribers expecting something more. And with little in the way of romance or comedy, it even falls short of offering viewers another high school-set comfort film.