Teen romances, a genre theatrical release Hollywood has pretty much abandoned, has been a fertile niche for Netflix to make its own. The streaming service has made the edgy, hormonal teen sex comedy its sweet spot in movies that appeal to teenagers.
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and basically anything starring Joey King (“The Kissing Booth,” “Summer ’03”) had naughty wit and “They grow up so FAST” sexual overtones that proved catnip to kids out of school for the summer.
The teen comedies further from the edge have proven trickier.
“Tall Girl” wears its “TV-PG” rating with pride, and is practically swimming in sweetness, almost refreshing in its eschewing “naughty” for naivete.
But sweetness can only carry it so far when the jokes are this weary, and the cast — playing slight variations on the usual high school movie “types” — doesn’t have that “pop” that screen charisma delivers.
Willowy dancer/actress Ava Michelle of TV’s “Dance Moms” stars as Jodi, at 6’1″ entirely “too tall” to easily fit in at the New Orleans high school where she’s spending her sophomore (16 year old) year.
We meet her as there’s a near-flirtation in the library, her girl-splaining “The Confederacy of Dunces” to a new classmate. He’s all set to ask her out when they stand up to leave, and it’s obvious she could dunk on him all day long if they played one-on-one.
Her school years have been one class photo, standing in the back row, after another. Her days are filled with “How’s the weather up there?” cracks, “Jodi Green Giant” jokes, a girl who has come to dread being noticed at an age when most of us are trying to find a way to get noticed.
Her dad (Steve Zahn) has been concerned since her childhood, weighing with her mother (Angela Kinsey of “The Office”) the merits of “growth stunting” drugs (“You don’t really want to have children, do you, honey?”). Now, he’s just tactless, bringing up “health problems” of the very tall, how the “freakishly” towering “die young.”
Jodi has emotionally shrunk the taller she’s grown. She stopped playing the piano, which she loved, because “I don’t need to give other people a reason to look at me.”
She has a defender and BFF at school, the free-spirited “Why walk when you can dance?” Fareeda (Anjelika Washington) and a persistent, too-short-for-me suitor, Jack Dunkelman (Griffin Gluck) whom she keeps in the friend zone.
The vivacious mean girl Kimmy (Clara Wilsey) has teased her since forever, one of Jodi’s “OTs — original tormentors.”
“Nice sweatpants, Sasquatch!” has morphed into “Let’s face it, Jodi. You’ll always be ‘the Tall Girl.’ You’ll never be ‘the Pretty Girl.'”
And then a movie miracle occurs. A Swedish exchange student arrives, tall blond and backlit as he strolls into class. Stig (model turned actor Luke Eisner) might have been a “dork” back home. But here, he’s the exotic Nordic god all the girls swoon over “like sharks to chum!”
That includes Jodi. And that leads her to take the desperate step of consulting with her dizzy community college (Hotel Management studies) beauty queen older sister, Harper.
“How do I get a guy to notice me?” leads to the makeover, and the sassy “judgement” from older-but-shorter-and-cuter Harper, given a dizzy snap by child star Sabrina Carpenter.
“Stop dressing like a — no offense — a very LARGE little boy!”
Things break down in utterly expected ways, with Mean Girl taking on Tall Girl for the Swede Boy.
“What’re you playing at, Bean Stalk?”
The big bite of pathos comes from this line — “Being a tall guy in great. When when you’re a tall girl, that’s ALL they see!”
Michelle looks like this year’s taller, new version of Leelee Sobieski, but doesn’t have the acting chops to give us much more than shy and awkward at this stage of her acting career. Thus, most of the laughs come from the more polished actresses playing Mean Girl, BFF and Sympathetic Sister.
Hints of the movie this might have been come from the few moments where the production makes use of the location. New Orleans streetcars, marching band parades and a voodoo escape room are the only traces of this exotic locale that make it onto the screen.
Yeah, you’re making a low-budget comedy for Netflix with Louisiana incentive money. If you’re setting the story there, why not have the cast — some of them, anyway — take a shot at the accent? This lot are generic SoCal child-actors-in-their-teens. Colorless.
Still, the sweetness of “Tall Girl” compensates for some of its shortcomings. Payoff moments come in the oddest places, Dad’s tactless attempt to induct Jodi into the Tip Top Club (all tall people, adults), Harper’s pre-pageant command to “Slap if you EVER see me eating carbs!” and the reason dorky Jack “Dunkers” totes his books to school in an orange crate.
I love the idea of Netflix tailoring some of its teen-friendly output to younger teens. Not every comedy has to have the promise of virginity-ending hook-ups with Joey King or her male counterpart, Noah Centineo.
So keep at it, guys. “Tall Girl” may miss, but it doesn’t miss by much.
MPAA Rating: TV-PG.
Credits: Directed by Nzingha Stewart, script by Sam Wolfson. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:42