4 Feet: Blind Date, which gave viewers the perspective of a teenage wheelchair user, won Best Narrative VR Film at SXSW 2019. It has since spawned 4 Feet High, a six-part Argentinian high school set made-for-television series and an accompanying four-part VR series, both of which world premiered at this year’s Sundance, with the first episode playing at SXSW Online 2021 going on to win the Jury Award in the festival’s Episodic Pilot Competition.
Based on the real life experiences of disability rights activist Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, who co-wrote and co-directed the series with Maria Belen Poncio, 4 Feet High stars Marisol Agostina Irigoyen as seventeen-year-old Juana, who is navigating starting a new high school for her senior year. She soon becomes friends with two queer kids in class, Efe (Marcio Ramses) and Julia (Florencia Licera), who are incensed by the way their school is avoiding teaching sex education and committed to campaigning for change. Quickly getting into trouble for cutting class and graffitiing slogans about abortion rights around school, Juana requests that the principal not treat her any differently from her fellow students just because she uses a wheelchair.
In need of somewhere private to hangout and smoke, Juana shares the school’s disabled toilet with her new friends, with the neglected room becoming a quirky den for the group, while in return Julia offers Juana the keys to her apartment so she can hook up with a guy whom she meets at a bar via an app. Before uploading her profile photo to the dating app Juana crops it closely so her wheelchair is out of the frame. As the series progresses and she becomes more confident and sexually experienced, she uploads a new full body shot including her wheelchair. At home Juana has a strained dynamic with her loving mother Diana (Natalia Di Cienzo), frustrated by her being concerned and protective over her, while at school tensions arise with Julia when Juana immediately proves a natural as an activist, firing up her fellow students with speeches on a megaphone.
Marisol Agostina Irigoyen is captivating in the central role, funny, and wonderfully natural with an expressive face, conveying Julia’s passion, frustrations, and independent spirit. Like most teens discovering themselves Juana doesn’t always behave in the most likable or rational way, but Irigoyen allows us to empathize with her throughout.
Although the series feels groundbreaking, almost taboo-busting, in many ways with a teenage disabled lead exploring her sexuality, featuring beautifully shot, sometimes awkward, sometimes sweet and tender sex scenes, Juana is not defined by being a wheelchair user, it’s only an aspect of her life experience, and the plot doesn’t revolve around her disability. Enhanced by stylish animated flourishes we’re given an insight into Juana’s interior life, including a very hot and steamy opening sequence depicting Juana’s fantasy of a threesome with a man and a woman, while we see her arrival at school for the first day through the sexually charged filter of how she’d like it to be with enhanced colors and music, contrasted with the more drab reality; with the VR strand of the series taking us deeper into Juana’s POV. Similarly the series’ characters aren’t defined by, or struggling to accept, their queerness.
We’re never told “what happened to her”, why she’s in a wheelchair, something that Masjoan did a popular Ted Talk about in 2016 and ultimately we get to know Juana so well that any initial curiosity we might have around that question becomes insignificant, replaced by our deep connection to the character, while her own frustrations related to her disability are more to do with how she is treated by other people. Like recent US high school dramas such as Genera+ion and Grand Army, the series doesn’t fetishize the high school experience or talk down its characters, but captures a sense of the reality and concerns of a 2020s teen, conveyed in a heightened way at times that aligns with intensity of discovering oneself and experiencing so much for the first time.
With a striking visual style, 4 Feet High brings a fresh, dynamic new voice to the high school narrative on screen. After six episodes I’m hooked and hope we get to see more of Juana and her friends.
By James Kleinmann