by Anokha Venugopal
[originally published 9/27/2019]
“Let’s face it Jodi, you’re the tall girl. You’ll never be the pretty girl.”
Netflix’s Tall Girl examines the common trope of self-acceptance through the lens of Jodi, a 6’1 tall girl who seems to hate every inch of herself. Jodi is ridiculed daily for her 73 inches at school, which, to be fair, is not extremely tall. However, she has become somewhat of a social pariah as she is constantly teased at school. One creative student has the audacity to ask “how’s the weather up there?”
For Jodi, life is ‘hard’. In fact, she even feels the need to tell us so, and breaks the fourth wall to complain, “You think your life is hard? I’m a high school junior wearing size 13 nikes. Men’s size 13 nikes. Beat that.” I guess if we ever need some perspective on the mundane nature of our own problems, we should just turn to Jodi. While Tall Girl seems to have multiple plot holes and faults as a film, its main fault is in its base concept: that being a tall girl is enough of a marginalizing experience to serve as a vessel through which to depict hardship.
I don’t deny that being tall may come with its own set of problems, and can very well be a point of insecurity for oneself, especially if they are frequently teased about it, as in Jodi’s case. I myself cannot identify with the struggles of extended height; I’m a bit lacking in that area, in my 5’2 (and-a-half!) glory. Maybe I should create a film called Short Girl. Anyway, these are things that I completely understand, and perhaps for some people, this film was a potential representation of the challenges they face on the daily. To see how an actual tall girl identified with the film, check out USA Today’s article “What Netflix's 'Tall Girl' gets right (and wrong) about being a teenage girl over 6 feet”. However, my problem with the film is that tallness, of all things, is not the sort of representation we so lack in Western media right now. In fact, the primary physical trait that diversifies Jodi in Tall Girl is her height. Other than that, she is a privileged blonde white girl with blue eyes and an equally generic white love interest to match. One may argue that this love interest, Stig, being Swedish is an attempt at some level of diversity. However, you’ll be shocked to find out that he was actually American actor Luke Eisner putting on a Swedish accent, which Youtube comments claim was horribly botched. One commenter even asked, “Is no one going to break it to him that he sounds like a bear on crack?” Perhaps some credit can be given to the filmmakers for her black best friend Fareeda (Anjelika Washington). However, even then, she is not given much more than a supporting role, primarily being there to defend Jodi and serve as moral support. In fact, Fareeda herself at one point states, “Sometimes I wonder what it'd be like to go to lunch with my friends and have them ask me about my problems,” after being repeatedly talked over and vented to by Jodi and her secondary love interest, Jack Dunkleman. Fareeda desperately needed more moments in the film; her coolness and bold fashion sense are given a back seat, and serve only to amplify the fact that while Jodi cannot accept herself, Fareeda can.
Fareeda symbolizes the confidence that Jodi aspires to have, and doesn’t amount to much more than that as a character. However, there is an interesting moment of tension in the film in which Jodi decides to flake on Fareeda for a boy, who up until two minutes prior, had been one of the many teasing Jodi for her height. Even though Fareeda and Jodi ‘resolve’ their conflict at the end of the film, this is done half-heartedly, with Jodi apologizing from a stage rather than in person, and Fareeda silently acknowledging her apology with a smile, granting her no agency over the situation, or any lines for that matter. Interestingly, the director of Tall Girl was a black woman, Nzingha Stewart, who in response to a question on being a black female director had to say “I don’t even think about it. It is harder for black people to get non-black movies, if you run the statistics. Sometimes, there will be a non-black movie that I love where I do have to talk to myself. You can almost talk yourself out of it first. You have to stop that. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. I can’t say no to myself before someone else has.”
Outside the film’s true message about accepting one’s self despite who they are, there’s nothing truly creative about it. As Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Times puts it, “America’s mood has changed, and many viewers might not feel much empathy for the small-minded grievances of wealthy teens who drive to school in S.U.V.s.” I’m all for the nineties high school rom-com, but the reason I love those films is because of how dated they are. Between the makeover, the prom, the mean boys finally getting their penance, I’m more prone to take them as they are because I expect less of them. Right now, Tall Girl feels like something desiring to attain that same credibility with a more self-empowering twist. But it’s getting old. How many more films do we need to see detailing the ‘horrors’ of highschool, with the mean girl, the nerdy boy, the funky best friend, the hunky guy, etc? Because, to be honest, that’s not what high school was like for me.
For those looking for something slightly more modern, a film I found personally more enjoyable was Booksmart. Though this film also lacks in racial diversity, I especially appreciated Kaitlyn Dever’s performance as Amy, a jittery, hilarious lesbian lead. It was an interesting moment when I asked myself and friends for diverse teenage highschool films, and found that many of us struggled to think of more than a few. While there have been several films in past years that have made it to the forefront of Hollywood with diverse casts, such as Yesterday, Moonlight, Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, Get Out, Us, and maybe even Avengers or Bohemian Rhapsody, it seems that films directed primarily towards teenagers are missing quite a bit of diversity. From some crowdsourcing and self-reflection, I have come up with Bend It Like Beckham, which albeit being from 2002, still holds up as an excellent film about an Indian teenager in England, who joins a football team despite the warnings of her family. Another film by the same director, Gurinder Chadha, is Blinded By the Light, a recent film that follows a British-Pakistani teenager introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a cute, compact rom-com, with Lana Condor as the Asian-American protagonist. Some other films that I think do pretty great jobs of inclusive racial diversity are the recent Spiderman films, particularly Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, a beautifully animated film about Miles Morales, a teenager with an African-American/Puerto Rican background living in New York City, who of course, is bitten by a spider. However, we need more films like these that, unlike Tall Girl, portray a more realistic viewpoint of modern society, be that in racial diversity, LGBTQ+ representation, single-parent households, and other walks of life. To Hollywood, these are minorities, but to the standard viewer, especially a teenager growing up in the USA, these are experiences that we encounter on a daily basis, and need to see projected on the large screen to avoid the mindset that we will never have our stories told to a wider audience.
Tall Girl at times makes a mockery of itself, especially when Angela Kinsey, Jodi’s mother, saya “You just have to be strong in the face of adversity.” Despite addressing the idea of insecurity and self-acceptance, Tall Girl barely scratches the surface of ‘adversity.’ Perhaps the film would have been more successful if it had dug deeper into each character in the film and their true insecurities or supposed faults. Instead, it focused on Swedish love interest Stig’s (Luke Eisner) fears that he seems too geeky or that Jodi’s pageant queen sister Harper is pretty but has allergies. Tall Girl doesn’t bring anything new to the table, and even in attempting to teach us to embody our faults as strengths, it is very one-sided. It is not the only vessel through which to show us how to love ourselves, and perhaps, had it been more diversely cast, it would have resonated with a larger audience. Netflix’s recent increase in originally produced content can only be successful if we are presented with alternate story lines. Instead of cancelling beautifully inclusive shows like One Day at a Time, and pouring all their money into a film like Tall Girl just to make sure that every character is abnormally short in comparison to Jodi, Netflix needs to focus on creating the next generation of comprehensive, relatable cinema. It’s not that hard.