Going into the advance press screening of the new Netflix original movie “Tall Girl,” I made the decision not to watch the trailer for the movie, due to the fact I wanted to go in knowing as little as possible. This led to some joking speculation as I sat in the theater waiting for the movie to start. Based on the movie poster beamed onto the screen, I tried to guess what typical teen tropes would be featured in this movie, from the movie starting with a good but slightly out of character Top 40 pop song, to the voice over in the hallway as the main character talks about her insecurities, to the rich, popular “mean girl” character.
As the movie started, I realized how spot on my observations were, from the calm, opening scene in the library with the, of course, out-of-character bisexual power anthem “Make Me Feel” playing in the background to the hallway scene playing out exactly how envisioned it. I decided to give the first 10 minutes a pass thinking that once the story started kicking in, I would see something unique.
The plot of this film is that the title “Tall Girl” Jodi (played by Ava Michelle) stands at a strong 6’1, the tallest person in her school by far. She is bullied and teased by her classmates except for her lovable and charismatic best friend Fareeda (Anjelika Washington), whose creativity is one of the highlights of the film, and her other friend Jack (Griffin Gluck) who’s been madly in love with Jodi for seven years. When a new foreign exchange student, Stig (portrayed by Luke Eisner), waltzes into the picture, Jodie finds the quiet life she knew hidden away from everyone turned upside down.
To its credit, the movie tries really hard to be modern and relevant when it comes to its messages about accepting people for who they really are. However, at best, the movie ends up feeling like subtext from an early 2000s Disney sitcom. From the insults (the harshest insults that Jodi endures are people asking her constantly how the weather is up there) to the super toxic disjointed side plot about Jodi’s sister, Harper (Sabrina Carpenter), being a pageant queen. In what is one of the most out of touch parts of the film, Harper tells Jodi how she’s on a no-carb diet and is intentionally wearing dresses too small in order to become skinnier. Instead of taking this time to have Jodi call her sister out and deliver a message about how harmful diet culture is, the scenes are simply played for laughs.
Speaking of characters, seeing as the plot is pretty bare bones, the characters tend to be the driving point of the film. Or they would be if any of them were likeable, the exception being Fareeda but we’ll get to her later. Being teenagers, of course, none of the characters are perfect and they all make mistakes in some way or another. The problem is no one is really held accountable for their actions. Jack is a prime example of this. Throughout the movie, he continuously tries to sabotage Jodi’s budding romance with Stig by intentionally trying to drive them apart so that he can get closer. Jack wants a chance at a relationship with her, despite the fact that Jodi has repeatedly shown no interest in dating him.
Another big issue this movie has comes from its subtext. Here you have this story set in the vibrant city of New Orleans. Throughout the movie, there are vibrant shots of black cultural street art, there are references to NOLA native artists such as Tank and the Bangas. Even the high school where the movie is set in is named after Civil RIghts activist Ruby Bridges. So it’s really hard to understand why this beautiful black backdrop for this story was used to elevate a story centered around a white girl whose “problems” of being tall are solved by her taking her hair down and putting on some lip gloss.
In fact, this all could’ve been solved if the movie had switched perspectives to the Jodi’s best friend Fareeda. She’s optimistic, has a killer fashion sense, and isn’t here to take anyone’s BS. There’s a point in the movie as she’s sitting in a coffee shop listening to her friends complaining about their romance problems where she wonders to herself how come no one ever takes any time to ask her how her life is going.
This line ironically highlights the way her character is sidelined in the film. We get hints about her life — how she went against her parents telling them how she wants to be a fashion designer when she grows up, but that’s about it. At one point she and Jodi get into an argument due to the fact that Jodi is considering blowing off their weekend plans to go on a date with a guy (who has bullied her). Fareeda is confused as to why she would want to go out with a guy like that who clearly doesn’t deserve her, but instead, Jodi takes insult to this. They don’t make up until the end in which Jodi offers up a weak apology and everything is supposed to be fine again.
All in all, this movie wants to deliver a powerful message about acceptance and maybe in a different time, it would have succeeded. However, it tiptoes around the subject, parading vague messages about being yourself and ignoring the haters. Watching this film as a marginalized person, it almost feels like a satire. A whole movie centered around giving straight white girls the representation they’ve clearly been lacking in the YA genre? It’s not as if there any films that exist about that already.
It’s not a good look, especially when all your additional characters of color either exist as villains or sidekicks to further the white lead’s narrative. Even ignoring all of this, the message the movie gives is one of conformity. Jodi’s own family pressures her into looking more feminine in order to be desirable and that’s when she starts getting more positive attention.
“Tall Girl” tries to be the best of both worlds, a classic teen story and a film challenging the norms that people judge each other about. However, due to its surface-level dive into both topics and serious lack of originality, it ends up doing neither.
Lyric Eschoe, 18, attends Spelman College, and desperately wants more rom-coms starring women of color.