Don’t judge a teen rom-com by its trailer.
When Netflix released its first trailer for Tall Girl, it sparked concern that the film would send the wrong message in 2019. In an era that’s begun to focus more on actual marginalized identities encompassing race, gender, and disability, a “Tall Lives Matter” film doesn’t feel like what we need right now.
As is often the case with assumptions made on Twitter, that’s not what this film is doing at all. In fact, Tall Girl gently mocks its target audience of relatively privileged teenagers who believe they have it worse than everyone else.
DIRECTOR: Nzingha Stewart
This funny, self-aware rom-com reminds viewers that experiencing alienation doesn’t make you special or weird. It just makes you a teenager.
Tall Girl doesn’t attempt to conflate tallness with marginalized groups, but instead points out the absurdity of how teenage life makes everyone feel less than. Every character— protagonist or antagonist, studly exchange student or nerdy gamer—has a moment when they feel ostracized and small. The “tall girl” experience is the teen experience.
The film confidently announces its thematic intentions in its first few moments. Jodi (Ava Michelle), the titular tall girl, is in English class studying Confederacy of Dunces, a nod to the film’s New Orleans setting. She says, “It’s about alienation. It’s about Ignatius finding acceptance in a world that wants nothing to do with him.”
Tall Girl works so well because the film doesn’t take Jodi’s plight as seriously as she does. Toward the beginning of the film, Jodi’s mother says that she had a difficult time in high school too, because she was “so beautiful.” Everyone remembers themselves as the odd one out in high school, even beauty queens.
Director Nzingha Stewart and writer Sam Wolfson thread an incredible needle with the cast, respecting the emotional journeys of these teens while keeping the proceedings light and funny. Jodi also has a chorus of people who care about her ready to tell her she doesn’t have it that bad. Her best friend Fareeda (Anjelika Washington) and friend-zoned buddy Jack (Griffin Gluck) constantly encourage her to relax and enjoy life instead of worrying about what everyone else thinks.
The supporting cast serves to combat Jodi’s self-seriousness while also offering comic relief, which keeps Tall Girl buoyant. Gluck might become a comedy star after his physically sharp turn here. Casting Steve Zahn and Angela Kinsey as Jodi’s parents could make these veteran character actors what Eugene Levy and Jennifer Coolidge were for a previous generation.
Tall Girl also has a number of surprisingly sharp comedic sequences. Sabrina Carpenter plays Jodi’s pageant queen older sister Harper with sweetness and humor instead of the stereotypical iciness. A scene in which she counsels Jodi not to pursue an exchange student because every girl in school will be circling them is hilarious. Making the “hot girl” the comic relief is tough, but it works here.
The film also uses its Louisiana setting to its advantage (even if the filmmakers probably chose the location for the state’s generous tax credit). B-roll of New Orleans neighborhoods and location shooting in shotgun houses and French Quarter mansions add another unique touch to the film.
Most importantly, Tall Girl constantly circles back to its main theme, deepening and enriching its ideas. Every teenager feels like a loser in high school. Every teenager experiences unrequited love. Every teenager feels that the world is deeply unfair. Even pageant queen Harper and Swedish exchange student Stig (Luke Eisner) have crippling insecurities that the lusty glances of their peers can’t cure. Tall Girl reminds viewers that experiencing alienation doesn’t make you special or weird. It just makes you a teenager.
Tall Girl isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. As with most Netflix rom-coms, the “Hallmark Channel budget for good scripts” formula results in scenes that are underlit, undershot, and altogether under-budgeted. And like many studio rom-coms made for adults, the film makes a few missteps in the run-up to its climax. But the film’s act-two problems are no more damning than the ones that occur in classics like You’ve Got Mail or Notting Hill.
For the most part, however, Tall Girl is a success. Just as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That resonated with a previous generation, Tall Girl’s message of self-acceptance and self-awareness could make the film a mainstay among teens today.
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