“Poncio & Masjoan have made something smart, engaging, and truly life-changing for a whole generation of people with disabilities around the world.”
Although its virtual platform will certainly increase viewership by both industry professionals and casual film fans alike, there will always be Sundance titles that grab more attention than others. When choosing between crowd-pleasing fare like CODA and Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street or more artful selections like John and the Hole and A Glitch in the Matrix, it’s inevitable that some less buzzed-about projects will get lost in the shuffle. 4 Feet High is both a project I fear that will happen to and a one-of-a-kind story that anyone who misses will deeply regret.
Maria Belen Poncio & Rosario Perazolo Masjoan’s miniseries follows a seventeen-year-old wheelchair user named Juana (Marisol Agostina Irigoyen) living in Argentina who, after entering a new high school, begins to explore her sexuality, others’ preconceived notions of her, and her relationship to her own body. Along with her new friends and her sister Elena (Francisca Spinotti), Juana challenges the system and begins to find liberation on her own terms.
From the outset, 4 Feet High looks like it might be another generic high school comedy with underrepresented characters thrown in for woke points, but this show is far more radical than it lets on. Writers Poncio, Majoan (who the character of Juana is based on), & Delphine Agut take a great deal of care in making sure all of their characters feel realistically flawed and thoroughly lived-in. Marginalized characters, whether it be Juana or her queer friends Julia (Florencia Licera) and Efe (Marcio Ramses), are treated with a great deal of delicacy and cultural specificity in their dialogue, appearances, and character arcs.
The show subverts expectations for a teen comedy by committing wholeheartedly to its intersectional feminist goals and refusing to allow any of the people in it become caricatures. In its early episodes, 4 Feet High seems like it may go down a clichéd path in relation to its LGBTQ+ supporting characters, but the beauty of this story is that when you underestimate it, it proves you firmly wrong.
Poncio and Masjoan tackle issues such as accessibility, sex education, abortion, protest, desirability politics, and both macro – and micro-aggressions – with ease. It’s extraordinary to consider all that they accomplish from a technical and socio-political standpoint while making you laugh and fall in love with these characters at the exact same time. There are references to real-world acts of resistance like the Occupy Schools movement that has seen protests from Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro to New York City. This show is not merely following the trends of contemporary television or activism but rather pushing both in exciting new directions.
In an especially poignant and pivotal scene, Juana is seen fighting back against her conservative teacher’s assumptions about her sex life with courage and verve that we rarely see in disabled characters onscreen. Juana is not defined by her body’s limitations or what other people think she’s capable of. After an awkward hook-up that leaves her feeling uncomfortable, Juana tells her friends “We f*cked so hard that he couldn’t move.” She does not exist to make anyone — in the show or its audience — comfortable.
We expect comedies to make us feel good, but it’s a testament to a phenomenal comedy when it can do that and then some, when it can provide both joy and education. 4 Feet High embodies that in every episode. Some of its sources of tension might feel contrived to some, but, in the context of these characters’ dynamics and what’s at stake for each of them, it works.
The final scene is a perfect note to end the season and perhaps the entire show on. Poncio & Masjoan have made something smart, engaging, and truly life-changing for a whole generation of people with disabilities around the world. If they want to end on a high note, that’s perfectly understandable and they should be proud of what they’ve already accomplished. But these characters’ journeys don’t feel done yet. If this show gets even a fraction of the attention it deserves, a network would be wise to pick it up for another season or two.
Dir: Maria Belen Poncio & Rosario Perazolo Masjoan
Prod: Ezequiel Lenardón & Marie Blondiaux
Cast: Marisol Agostina Irigoyen, Natalia di Cienzo, Florencia Licera, Marcio Ramses, Francisca Spinotti, Adrián Azaceta, Beto Bernuez, Eva Bianco, Hernán Sevilla
Release Date: 2021
Header image courtesy of Sundance Institute