High School-set movies offer a variety of possibilities for their audience; they can range from comedy to drama to horror (some may even argue that most teen movies offer some form of horror element). And beyond a seemingly well-trodden path, films that feature the perils of navigating high school can find fresh perspectives. Likewise, from familiar experiences, viewers can feel a sense of comfort that they were not the only ones going through a tough time.
Recently there has been a small wave of excellent films centered on the growing pains for teenage girls, that have shown those who linger outside of the popularity circle of high school. Some buck social conformity and forge their own paths like Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird, or they value academia over fitting in like our heroines Amy (Kaitlyn Denner) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) in this year’s Booksmart. Also, this year we had Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), the painfully shy 13-year-old in Bo Burham’s beautiful Eighth Grade, who is trying to survive the last week of term before becoming a high schooler.
Now into the odd girl(s) out narrative comes the Netflix original film Tall Girl, a teen movie that wants to show what the world of an above-average height high school girl is like and the challenges she will have to overcome.
Tall Girl starts with our protagonist 16- year-old Jodi (Ava Michelle) sitting in a library and catching the eye of a boy across the room. A meet-cute begins as they discuss the books they are reading, and he stands up and comes over to ask her on a date. As Jodi rises, the boy recoils in horror as he realises how tall she is, the camera framing her height to look like a giant. We then discover that she is 6′ 1″ which, while taller than the average student, is hardly the gigantic size the camera initially creates.
This failed liaison gives us a glimpse into Jodi’s life and as she travels down the halls of her high school, we witness the daily teasing she is subjected to. It is something she has dealt with all her life as flashbacks show her being taken to the doctors by her parents Helanie and Richie (Angela Kinsey and Steve Zahn) who are worried about their tall toddler. And we see her struggling with nasty nursery kids pointing out her big hands and awkward school photos only to be assigned to the back as to not dwarf her classmates.
Despite her introverted nature and avoidance of social situations, Jodi has her obligatory straight-talking, life-affirming best friend Fareeda (Anjelika Washington) and her obligatory madly-in-love-with-her male best friend Jack (the fantastically monikered Griffin Gluck).
While Jodi withdraws from anything that might direct further attention to her, her world is turned upside down at the arrival of Swedish exchange student, Stig (Luke Eisner), a teenager who is even taller than she is. She becomes thrown into a love triangle, competing with the high school mean girl Kimmy (Clara Wilsey), something that will throw her friendships into jeopardy and force Jodi to work out how she is going to live her life, beyond just being the tall girl.
Sizing Up Its Shortcomings
On a personal level, I really wanted to like this film, having been the tall girl myself at my own school (I was head and shoulders above my classmates by age 12) and having experienced some of the same incidents in my own formative years.
But Tall Girl is a completely missed opportunity and one that reinforces all the tired tropes of teen movies in a paint-by-numbers narrative that offers no detours on its predictable journey. From the outset, it is a smorgasbord of clichés, from the friendships and fallouts to Jodi’s makeover (hair down, lipstick on) to the homecoming dance which will be the setting for Jodi’s ultimate redemption and character realisation.
What could have been a sweet, nuanced film about an outsider finding her feet instead feels like something that would have been peddled on the Disney channel years ago circa the Hanna Montana era (though this may be appealing depending on your sensibilities). There are a couple of moments where the film has the chance to offer something a little different, the setting of New Orleans is one not often associated with a teen movie, but the production values and limited locations used squander what could have been an interesting backdrop.
Similarly, in one scene, the film creates a sweet moment to showcase height challenges as Jodi and Stig take a tram ride and their legs tangle in the restricted seats, but this is lost in a sea of head banging-against-door-frame-shots that reinforce tall stereotypes. Worse still is a scene where Richie invites a tall collective to their home to cheer up his daughter and show Jodi that there are other people like her, but the group called the “Tall Toppers” are presented as either miserable or maniacal and are caricatures in jaunty sailor hats. The film does not seem to grasp what way it wants to present its subject manner and therefore fails at making any emotional connection, paling in comparison to recent female-led teen films that have handled their material with sensitivity and subtlety.
Conclusion: Tall Girl
Netflix’s appeal to the younger generation, who might watch films and shows off the back of social media buzz, may explain why Tall Girl was greenlit; they may have thought they would create a teen hit with its high school setting and colourful characters. So, it is a shame that the film falls short, as great teen movies can transcend the initial audience they are targeted at, presenting narratives that ring true to many who are of the same age or who were once in that awkward stage of life.
Other than resolving the question as to what happened to Steve Zahn and Angela from The Office or what happens when you let McG produce a teen flick, Tall Girl has nothing new or fresh to bring to the genre. Instead, it feels a little cheap, very hollow, and loaded with scenes that you can see coming a mile off, even without a height advantage.
But maybe I am being a little harsh; perhaps the film doesn’t have lofty ambitions to speak to the loners of the school, perhaps it is just a just piece of Netflix fluff to pass the time. And if it finds an audience who enjoys its cheesy formula and thinly drawn characters then good luck to it. But for this former high school tall girl, the film falls terribly short.
Do you enjoy teen movies? Were you the tall one in your school? Will you give Tall Girl a watch? Please let us know in the comments below!
Tall Girl was released on Netflix on 13th September 2019.
Watch Tall Girl
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