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Tall Girl’s familiar teen love story fails to reach new heights

Photo: Scott Saltzman (Netflix)
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Within the ever-buzzy genre of “Netflix rom-coms,” is the even more specific subset of high school romantic comedies. Ranging from the highs of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before to the lows of The Kissing Booth, these films revitalize the John Hughes ethos for a Gen Z crowd. Nzingha Stewart’s new film Tall Girl lands squarely in the middle of the pack. It’s an earnest, well-meaning teen flick about the trials and tribulations of a 6’1” 16-year-old named Jodi Kreyman (former Dance Moms star and real-life tall girl Ava Michelle). Yet despite a handful of sharp observations, a committed young cast, and some occasional visual flair from Stewart, the film can’t rise above a mediocre script that reheats high school movie tropes without adding any heart or specificity to the mix.

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Tall Girl offers a girl-centric flipside to the decades of films about nebbishy young men who feel insecure in their bodies. Jodi is tall and ungainly in a world where women are expected to be tiny and dainty. She can’t wear heels (not that she wants to) because they aren’t readily available for her men’s size 13 feet. Her larger hands are an asset in her piano playing skills, but years of being teased and gawked at for being “the tall girl” have made her dread the thought of putting herself in a setting where people might stare at her even more than they already do. Jodi is also the only tall person in her family, and Stewart finds welcome visual humor in contrasting Michelle’s lanky frame with the slighter builds of Steve Zahn as her dad, Angela Kinsey as her mom, and Girl Meet World’s Sabrina Carpenter as her beauty pageant contestant older sister. The supportive family throughline is the strongest, sweetest part of the film, and it’s a particularly nice touch that Tall Girl paints its two very different sisters as allies, rather than rivals. Carpenter gives an eccentric comedic performance that feels like it belongs in an entirely different film, but at least keeps things lively.

Unfortunately, the high school stuff doesn’t fare as well. The movie feels like a retro throwback—and not in a fun way. From a one-note mean girl stereotype to a complete disinterest in how social media shapes the lives of teens, Sam Wolfson’s lackluster script fails to bring anything new or timely to the teen rom-com table. This is a film where teenagers refer to texts as “text messages” and happily answer phone calls from unknown numbers. The specificity of Jodi’s story eventually gives way to generalized platitudes about the importance of confidence and self-acceptance—all delivered via a big speech at a high-stakes high school event, which is the sort of thing that already felt a bit overdone back when Mean Girls did it in 2004.

Indeed, more than anything, Tall Girl feels like a rehash of one of the films that set the teen movie template to begin with, John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink. Jodi’s tallness stands in for Andie’s working class alienation. In place of rich dreamboy Blane, there’s Stig (Luke Eisner), a hunky Swedish exchange student who’s not only taller than Jodi, but comes from a country where tall women are the norm. And in place of Duckie there’s Jack Dunkleman (American Vandal’s Griffin Gluck), a nerdy guy who’s been openly crushing on his best friend since elementary school. Yet this 2019 film somehow does an even worse job than that 1986 one of recognizing the desperation and occasional creepiness of a possessive teenager like Duckie/Dunkleman (the name similarity feels like a direct hat tip). Tall Girl seems to think that lampshading a lazy cliché makes it okay to indulge in it. As a result, there are several things about Dunkleman that feel ill-considered, which is also a problem with Jodi’s other bestie Fareeda (Anjelika Washington), an almost pathologically overly supportive sounding board.

With a cast of underutilized scene-stealers and an appreciably unique New Orleans setting, Tall Girl might’ve made a better TV show than a movie. There’s potential in its premise, but the story (and the comedy) need more space to grow and develop a rhythm. Then again, these Netflix rom-coms tend to blur the already blurry distinctions between TV and film. Indeed, Netflix is billing Tall Girl as Stewart’s first feature, even though she previously wrote and directed the hugely successful 2015 Lifetime original film With This Ring, which starred big names like Regina Hall, Jill Scott and Eve. At this point, it’s basically impossible to define what separates a movie from a TV movie. Regardless, like a lot of these Netflix rom-coms, Tall Girl is seemingly designed to be viewed with the same casualness with which people binge-watch their favorite sitcoms.

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Yet there’s a fine line between “comfort food” and “lazy storytelling,” and Tall Girl has too much of the latter and not enough of the former. The film’s most original idea is that when Jodi gets a makeover, she’s not required to trade in her hoodies and sweatpants for girly dresses and skirts. Instead, her style update includes a killer turquoise suit. Unfortunately, that sort of originality is too few and far between in a film that proselytizes about the importance of being yourself, but fails to take any risks itself.

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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.