Tumble out of bed and I stumble in the kitchen, go to Netflix and put on Dumplin’; cry despite myself because it’s good!
Based on the 2015 young-adult novel of the same name, Dumplin’ bites off a little more than it can chew in telling the feel-good story of a teenage girl learning to be at home in her own body. But the Netflix original, directed by Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, The Proposal), has enough appeal that it’s hard to complain too much — its charms outweigh its flaws. And weight is what sits squarely at Dumplin’s center, as the film’s lead, Willowdean Dickson (Danielle Macdonald, terrific here and stunning in last year’s Patti Cake$), struggles with hers.
Called “Will” by her friends and “Dumplin’” by her former-teen-beauty-queen mother Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), Willowdean is perfectly secure in her self-image despite the typical jabs aimed at her by her high school classmates and Rosie’s less than subtle attempts to make her slim down. She also loves Dolly Parton, a musical shorthand that the film uses to flesh out the shortage of meat on its bones. The soundtrack is filled with Parton’s music from top to bottom, which goes a long way towards giving the film a jolt of lightning.
Parton — who functions here as a sort of guardian angel and distant embodiment of self-acceptance and empowerment — is the kind of artist who has a knack for projecting her work directly into her audience’s heart (just try listening to “9 to 5” again and not bopping along), and Dumplin’ shamelessly capitalizes on that built-in love. Parton’s hits become synonymous to loving oneself, as Will recalls the “Dolly parties” she’d have with her late aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley), who helped raise her when she was younger.
The advent of a crush, however, sends Will into a spiral. Her sense of security comes from subscribing completely to the stereotypical conventions as to what doors are or aren’t open to girls of different shapes and sizes, and when Bo (Luke Benward), the handsome boy she works with at the local diner, makes it clear that he’s sweet on her, she finds herself adrift. A plot twist later, she enters into the same beauty pageant that her mother had won as a teenager, intending to use it as her own personal form of revolt.
The beginning of the movie is remarkable in just how comfortable Will is in her own skin, which is an unusual place for any film about coming of age to begin. It’s in her journey back to a place of self-confidence that the movie begins to lose direction, as the requisite montages feel a little empty by comparison. In particular, a squad of drag queens who end up helping Will and her friends (who enter into the pageant in an act of solidarity) come off as further excuses to talk about Dolly Parton (literally quoting the icon, “It’s a good thing I was born a girl, otherwise I’d be a drag queen”).
That said, even at surface level, Will’s other co-stars pop. There’s Odeya Rush as Will’s best friend, Ellen, who more closely fits the stereotypical mold of beauty queen (which becomes a source of tension as pageant training continues), and Maddie Baillio as goody two-shoes Millie Michalchuk, who deals with the same kind of bullying as Will, but somehow maintains a bright, sunny disposition throughout, are endlessly watchable. They’re terrific on their own, as well as forming a cohesive, believable unit. The dynamic between all of them — like this year’s The Spy Who Dumped Me — feels startlingly true to life, and largely lacking in the obviously manufactured melodrama that tends to characterize most films that center on young women.
As the film’s big-name anchor, Aniston’s part feels like a camped-up, watered-down corollary to Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird, as the clash between Rosie and Will’s expectations for Will’s future, as well as the reasons for Rosie’s relative absence from Will’s childhood, serve as the thrust for Will’s teenage rebellion. Aniston and Macdonald play off of each other well, even if every aspect of the relationship between them is told rather than shown.
They’re all charming enough to make it easy to forget that the movie is full of holes (the drag queens, the way the story almost completely drops the teenagers’ fight against the patriarchal standards that seem to be the backbone of beauty pageants, etc.). There’s a deeper movie to be dug out of the recipe Dumplin’ is working from, but that thornier material isn’t what the film is interested in. It’s a much less complicated pleasure; by the time the finale rolls around, it’s hard not to feel a bit of a rush, a feat that ultimately comes down to Macdonald, who is a bona fide star, and the aural IV drip of Parton’s music.
Parton never appears in the flesh, but her iconography is so present throughout the film (as, again, is her music) that her presence is still tangible. And if Dumplin’ is only half of a movie — the other half being a Dolly Parton tribute — then, well, there are worse ways of spending your time than opening your heart to a little self-affirmation.