“You think your life is hard? I’m a high school junior wearing size 13 Nikes. Men’s size 13 Nikes.”
That’s a quote from the first five minutes of the Netflix original “Tall Girl,” where 6’1” high school junior Jodi Kreyman (played by previous “Dance Moms” contestant Ava Michelle) works to overcome her insecurity over her height—a source of derision and torment from her peers.
Since “Tall Girl’s” release, the film faced criticism on social media that turned the tables on Jodi’s opening question to the audience. The inevitable conclusion the internet drew is that being tall is not that hard. “Get a basketball scholarship and get over it,” my friend remarked to me when we started the movie.
The internet is right: the premise—that being 6’1” leads to relentless bullying from Jodi’s peers, a father convinced her height is symptomatic of some mystery disease and a crippling fear that she’ll never find love—is hyperbolic. The line “you think your life is hard?” makes it clear that the movie doesn’t quite get that there are worse fates than being able to reach the top shelf of the cereal aisle.
Maybe, just maybe, this overdramatized depiction of what it’s like to be a tall woman could’ve worked if the movie had emphasized not that Jodi is tall, but that she’s a tall girl. Instead, “Tall Girl” ignores the intriguing, if not particularly provocative question of why we expect women to be small. The movie ultimately concludes that Kreyman can be tall—as long as she’s still shorter than her male love interest. According to “Tall Girl’s” logic, if you’re going to be different, you better get a man’s permission first.
While the movie misses any feminist interpretation by miles, it instead barrells headfirst into some major missteps. First, it lacks a substantially diverse cast. While there are some characters played by people of color, like Jodi’s nemesis Schnipper (Rico Paris) and her best friend Fareeda (Anjelika Washington), the film mostly centers around the three white leads. Schnipper represents the bully, and Fareeda represents the best friend, without their own unique motives or character arcs.
But Fareeda’s character makes sense given the movie’s utter lack of nuance. The opening line, “you think your life is hard?” focuses the movie on Jodi’s experience and challenges and forces her into the role of the greatest victim of the movie. “Tall Girl” can’t afford to have characters with lives more challenging than Jodi’s, forcing the movie to explore an unrealistic world in which your ability to dunk a basketball is inversely correlated with your social capital.
And what would a romantic comedy be without the quirky best friend turned love interest: Jack Dunkleman (Griffin Gluck), who previously starred in the medical drama “Private Practice.” As a character, Dunkleman is uninteresting and one dimensional, memorable only for his unreciprocated love of Jodi and the fact that he carries his school books in a milk crate. Cute.
Despite the movie’s fairly ridiculous premise, it depicts bits and pieces of sexism we don’t always recognize, namely the expectation that women are supposed to be smaller than men. When that expectation is shattered by Jodi, we get the voice of male insecurity, Schnipper, a character who has tormented our tall girl since childhood. And when Jodi complains that she’ll never get to wear heels with a date, we see another example of how women aren’t allowed to elevate themselves above the height of a man.
The repetition of the classic joke, “how’s the weather up there?” (mostly by Schnipper) is another example of how Jodi doesn’t fit within gender stereotypes. My aunt, who is 6’2”, gets asked this often and likes to respond with “it feels like rain” and then spit at the affronter. I wanted Kreyman’s response to be as confrontational. Instead, she mopes, hoping for some guy to come along who’s taller than her to make everything OK.
And in a not-so-shocking twist, the insanely attractive Swedish exchange student Stig Mohlin (Luke Eisner) arrives just in time to pull the movie from any progessive narrative that would have supported Jodi not needing a man’s permission to be tall. But Mohlin is dating the popular girl, Kimmy Sticher (Clara Wilsey), one of Jodi’s tormentors. Naturally, at least according to this movie’s twisted logic, Kreyman turns to her bully Schnipper to make him jealous because of course “Tall Girl” says that if a boy is mean to a girl, he just has a crush.
Jodi’s “Tall Boy” ultimately betrays her, choosing to be with the popular kids rather than date her. And in a moment that turns the tables on the usual teen romcom expectations, Jodi shows up to her homecoming dance in a double-breasted teal suit and gives an impassioned speech saying that she’s so much more than just the “Tall Girl.”
She doesn’t get a makeover, a big poofy dress and win homecoming queen—she’s accepted without conforming. But the scene that could’ve potentially turned the movie into something not explicitly empowering but at least passable again takes a wrong turn: Jodi returns from the dance to find Dunkleman waiting on her doorstep, and that quirky little milk crate he carries around to make up for his utter lack of character depth suddenly becomes a relevant plot point. Apparently he’s carried that crate every day he’s ever known Jodi so he can use it as a stepping stool to kiss her. Because it would be impossible for Jodi to bend down and kiss him—instead he needs to be taller.
The movie clumsily tries to make the usual point of self-love and self-acceptance: That it is OK to be a tall girl. But by passing Jodi from Dunkleman to Mohlin to Dunkleman, all it says is that it’s OK to be different as long as a man gives you permission. “Tall Girl” fails so spectacularly that if you’re tall, short or somewhere in the middle, you’ll hate it regardless.