Smooch Month brings with it the challenge of li’l ole me, the boy who does not watch romantic media, trying to find a handful of movies, series, or even albums, to talk about that fall into the category of smooch media. I like the exercise! I like forcing myself out of the zone of watching just pure adventure stuff, and it means I can have fun asking Netflix to just show me something with a keyword like ‘romantic comedy.’
And this time, it gave me Tall Girl.
The premise of Tall Girl is that our main character, Jodi, is tall. This results in her being bullied at school, criticised for not being feminine enough, and… that’s it. This is a high school romance story, which is to say it focuses on about four years of extremely regimented life during which you’re under too much stress, don’t get enough sleep, and have to spend all your time associating with assholes (because they are teenagers). I’ve never been to a high school like this, but everything I’ve seen indicate that this period of life is garbage and the systems around it make it worse. You start practicing dating, and then, because you’re a teenager, you break up, because you’re dating teenagers and they’re all awful. Anyway, the point is, it’s basically a four year long pressure cooker that’s designed to make the entire experience awful and amplify class differences.
And in this story space, our protagonist, who is Different because she is Tall, has to deal with finding love.
Now I want you to set aside for a moment the fact that half of my readership are hearing ‘six foot one woman’ and are quietly quaking in their shoes about how hot that sounds, and imagine that somehow being tall and gorgeous is a thing you’d get bullied for, because being tall, you absolutely would. The thing is, there’s nothing in the movie that Jodi is shown dealing with that sucks for her except in the ways in which the people around her treat her.
It’s a movie not about being a tall girl, but rather, about being a bullied girl. Literally at no point in this story are parents shown considering the idea of ‘let’s prevent our daughter being bullied by addressing the children’s behaviour,’ but the discussion of bone shortening surgery and hormone replacement therapy to stunt growth sure is!
That’s where it starts.
Now look, this is a teen romantic comedy. It’s not from a deep well of narrative excellence. When I watch one of these movies and it has a coherent, good through-line, my usual reaction is surprise. Saying then that Tall Girl is a confused movie with an incoherent ending isn’t really saying much because so many of these movies are about surfing through the fun bits in the middle, dealing with the third act complication like you’re pulling off a bandaid, then the big grand moment at the end where things get sort of sorted out and you find out where all these pieces are meant to be at the ‘end.’
Okay, so the movie’s not good.
Wait, no, it’s not that it’s not good.
This movie is really bad and it’s made out of eh bits.
Okay, so what about our archetypes. First, there’s Jodi, our protagonist, who’s introduced having been a sixteen year old girl who has read all the way through A Confederacy of Dunces. That’s literally our first impression of her, then the height is meant to be a ‘whoops’ thing. She’s from a family that is clearly stonkingly rich, with a giant house, regular access to medical services, never hurting for cash and able to finance the hobby of our next character, the Makeover girl:
Harper, her older sister and beauty pageant queen. She’s mostly superfluous to the story, and the detour of her whole pageant and her needless greatness is mostly there to be funny. Annnnd also, something we’ll get back to.
Then there’s our Best Friend, Fareeda, who… we’ll get back to.
We have one standard issue Mean Girl, a backup black bully which is I am sure not important or related at all, a backup sympathetic Mean Girl, and then the most important thing (apparently) in this kind of story, the Dogged Best Friend Boy and the Hunk.
In this case our Dogged Best Friend Boy, played by the amazingly named Gluck Griffin, is named Dunkelman, and one of those names is fictional but it’s the less amazing one. Dunkelman is the host family for our Swedish exchange hunk, Stig Mohlin, who arrives into the story space as someone taller than Jodi, and also gorgeous and smart and great.
Now with all those pieces in place, there’s a lot of different ways you can weave them together, and this movie tries to do a lot of them, like the process of making this movie was turning a dial and watching audience reactions until they could come up with a place they wanted to end.
I think the big problem with this movie, which is ostensibly about a woman, is that mostly, it’s actually about the boys. Specifically, it’s about Stig, who is introduced as a really cool character, a great guy, genuinely nice and sweet, and kind, and who is then transformed into an asshole who sucks in no small part thanks to the action of Dunkelman, who is acting out of jealousy, and Dunkelman, whose jealousy results in him treating his friend terribly, buys her some shoes and gets to get the girl in the end. The whole movie and Jodi’s ‘development’ (of telling her bullies she welcomes their bullying, to cheers) is really just her coming around to deliver to Dunkelman the girlfriend he started the movie bothering.
Because he punched someone.
Oh spoilers I guess for this stupid movie that sucks.
Now remember how I said we’d come back to some stuff? Okay, now it’s time to do that. Harper and Fareeda. Now, this is a movie ostensibly about bodies; about Dunkelman, an odious little smear of a human, struggles so hard against the lot he’s been given in life because he is both short and not remarkably hot (poor boy), and Stig is just waiting to turn into a total asshole because he was born hot and tall and Swedish. Dunkelman’s awfulness is forgiveable, because he’s small and ugly and plain, and Stig’s proven qualities and thoughtfulness are all meaningless, because he also behaved badly. It’s about Jodi, struggling with ‘being tall’ (except she’s not struggling with being tall, she’s struggling with being bullied). And you know what’s not in this movie, as far as I can see?
Look, I’m very cautious about talking about fatness. It’s not that it’s not my lane, it’s that it’s a lane where there’s a lot of fraught conversations and people talking over one another and ‘legitimate’ claims to talking about things, and there’s readings. It’s a topic that’s also full of reference loops – characters are fat when they’re treated as fat, and that can mean they’re nurturing, or kind, or – look, it’s a big nebulous space where you kind of have to do a lot of occlusion. It’s hard to look at one movie, in one spot, and unless the movie is actively calling attention to it, and say ‘ah, yes, this character is how this movie thinks of fatness.’
So understand I’m walking carefully here, especially because Fareeda is black, and there’s a lot of overlap in ‘fat traits’ and ‘black traits’ – these are characters who get put into secondary roles, they’re characters who lack agency, they’re often nurturing or caring, they’re often depicted as frail, distracted, or cowardly.
I think if Tall Girl has any opinions on fatness, it’s Fareeda.
And I think that if Tall Girl didn’t treat Fareeda with those story roles, you’d never imagine her as being subject to fatness.
In this movie about bodies and body types, with the idea of being bullied for being different central, it’s telling that there’s no fat friends. There’s nobody in this movie, that I could see, who is anything but Standard Hollywood Hot (and the actors, as far as I can see, are all 18 and older, so please don’t get weird about pointing out the way characters are depicted).
Now ostensibly I’d think that this movie just ignored the entire idea of it, and that was that – the same way most movies like this ignore queerness, the way this movie has no gay characters or trans characters, people who would absolutely have opinions about their relationships to their bodies, or their height. Fareeda might just be a hilariously downtrodden black girl who exists to do nothing but enable our white heroes (and even jokes about it). Then we get a moment where Harper shows how she relates to her clothes, and says, If you see me eating a carb, slap it out of my face.
It’s not just that this is anti-fatness, it’s so anti-fatness that it’s not just not showing anyone fat, but the idea of gaining any weight at all is horrifying.
Oh and they follow up on that. Harper does get a donut slapped out of her mouth or whatever.
I guess one final note: This is a movie where the midsection features an escape room. There you go. It’s got games in it. Does it do anything interesting with this? No, not at all.
Tall Girl may have some resonance, it may give you feels, it may promise you a pretty tall girl getting to fall in love and you may want that, and it may be a work by a woman director in a space that has been historically pretty down on them. I don’t want to undersell the value of this movie if you enjoyed it.
I sure as hell didn’t, though.