Netflix Movie Review: Tall Girl (2019)

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Whether it's the way you laugh too loud when you're nervous, stammer when you're shy, or seem to forget everything you've ever studied when you're handed a test, everyone has at least one thing that they wish they could change about themselves. And while most of us have figured out how to cope with or adapt to this perceived flaw as adults, there's nothing like high school to magnify these insecurities even more and doubly so when the thing we wish we could change about ourselves is something physical.

In nearly six foot two inch sixteen-year-old Jodi's case, although a simple search on the internet reveals that there is such a thing as height reduction surgery, the excruciatingly painful procedure isn't exactly a practical solution for the New Orleans high school junior played by Ava Michelle. Hoping for the same effect, she tries slouching her way into invisibility to avoid all of the snickers, stares, and inane comments by classmates who ask her how the weather is up there, even though that line is older than the Civil War battles she reads about in her American history textbook.

Establishing the theme, first as she describes the alienation experienced by the main character in A Confederacy of Dunces to a classmate and then in her voice-over narration, Jodi serves as an pleasant, immediately relatable stand-in for any hangup the viewer might have about themselves. However, as well drawn as the three-dimensional Jodi is, the rest of the film's characters are thinly sketched caricatures of retro teen movie archetypes by comparison.

And this is evident right from the start as we meet her fiercest supporters including the fashionably hip Fareeda (Anjelika Washington) who puts bullies in their place with one well spun line and the Duckie inspired Jack Dunkleman (played by scene stealer Griffin Gluck) who's had a crush on Jodi for as long as Kimmy (Clara Wilsey) has tormented her since they were children. Suffice it to say that, despite the affability of the actors bringing them to life, everyone in Tall Girl's orbit seems like they've wandered over from film sets of decades gone by, which basically makes them the "how's the weather up there?" of teen movie characters.

Although screenwriter Sam Wolfson tries to update the proceedings with escape rooms and gluten free bakeries, it feels mostly stale. Inconsistent in its characterization as it undercuts Jodi's mom (Angela Kinsey) as a passive aggressive prom queen and makes her dad (Steve Zahn) a hyper focused alarmist waiting for his tall daughter's health to fail in their earliest scenes before they mellow into almost entirely different people later on, it's to Kinsey and Zahn's credit that we remain interested in their roles.

While it's refreshing to make Jodi's beautiful pageant perfect older sister Harper (Sabrina Carpenter) so supportive of her "big little sister" instead of making her another object of misery in Jodi's life, with Harper's laughable grasp of history and pleas that Jodi should slap her if she eats carbs, she quickly turns into yet another stereotype.

Hopeful when Stig (Luke Eisner), a dreamy Swedish exchange student arrives who's even taller than she is, Jodi experiences her first serious crush and turns to Harper for help attracting the boy who's staying with Dunkleman. Pursuing Jodi in very different ways to differing degrees of success, Eisner and Gluck play off each other very well and share some unexpectedly funny, awkward scenes in the process. Things get even more complicated when her nemesis Kimmy sets her sights on and lands the handsome Swede, but when the two find they have a musical connection, the first of several love triangles develops.

Unwisely relegating Jodi's best friend Fareeda to extra status as the film goes on when some of the makeover scenes with Carpenter and Kinsey might've benefited from a young comedic buffer as opposed to the requisite mini dressing room montage and a lame in-film ad for Mac Cosmetics, it's clear that the film just doesn't know how to make adequate use of its lively ensemble. Not the only gimmicky scene, Tall Girl features a cringe-worthy moment where Jodi's parents host a Tip Toppers tall person's club party that goes nowhere. Likewise, infusing the film with a questionable message where each time Jodi starts to have confidence, it's inspired by a guy either finding her attractive or doing something selfless for her, by the time we reach the obligatory Mean Girls reminiscent big moment at the dance where our heroine literally tells us what she's learned, it doesn't seem remotely genuine or earned.

Still entertaining enough to watch in bed on a sick day or up late at a sleepover, despite Tall Girl's wholly original main character with whom many viewers will easily identify thanks to their own hangups, it's one of Netflix's weakest original YA romcoms. Taking a backseat to the streaming giant favorite To All the Boys I've Loved Before, Tall Girl also pales in comparison to the similarly themed, infinitely better structured (and likewise '80s inspired) Sierra Burgess is a Loser.

Yet with the color blocked background on display in Tall Girl's opening frames as Jodi discusses Dunces, the keen visual eye of first time feature filmmaker Nzingha Stewart makes for some truly memorable scenes that keep our interest even when the film itself starts to meander.

A romcom loving tall girl myself (and one who — just shy of six feet — was actually taller than her male first grade teacher when she was in the first grade), needless to say, I was easily the ideal audience for the film. Unfortunately, no matter how much I wished otherwise, in the end the Netflix movie plays like a version of teen movie Cliffs Notes where everything stays on the surface and, save for one moving scene with Steve Zahn, never gets too deep.

Though Tall Girl comes up short — to use a criticism that's sure to be the critic's version of "how's the weather up there," — it's still an admirable attempt to walk a mile in a sixteen-year-old girl's size thirteen men's shoes. Bolstered by a charming cast, while it's obvious that the film's heart is in the right place, unfortunately, Girl needs more authenticity and less artifice to make it count.

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