It has some charm and strong leading performances, but Dumplin’ is still a largely conventional pageant drama with a tendency to be mawkish and on-the-nose.
What do you get when you cross Jennifer Aniston, a young-adult novel, archaic image-focused pageant culture, and the music of Dolly Parton? You get Dumplin’, the new Netflix Original film about working 9 to 5 at accepting yourself for who you are.
Adapted from the same-titled 2015 novel by Julie Murphy, Dumplin’ is the latest Netflix release aimed specifically at a YA audience who’ll undoubtedly make the film a plus-sized hit. (The last one was To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which is currently my favourite rom-com of the year, so I’m just as much of a sucker as anyone.) With the enduring star-power of Jennifer Aniston in a quintessential Aniston role, and the film’s charming, unashamed message of refusing to define oneself by one’s weight even in a weird microcosm where weight defines everything, Dumplin’ is sure to find success. It just isn’t very good.
It’s not bad. Charming, fun, and with a message to get behind, it’s a likeable film that knows that about itself, so it also refuses to stray from the conventional coming-of-age rom-com way of things, often to its detriment. And despite a belting Backwoods soundtrack by the Barbie herself, who executive-produced Dumplin’ and contributed six original songs to it, it’s so confident in the nobility of its uplifting body-positive message that it almost always delivers it with meme-ready empowerment slogans rather than believable dialogue and storytelling.
But no matter. Key to Dumplin’ is Willowdean Dickson (Danielle Macdonald), the daughter of the local beauty queen Rosie Dickson (Jennifer Aniston), whose job here is to uphold the sanctity of the beauty circuit as a kind of antediluvian cultural touchstone, which annoys Willowdean because she’s overweight. Then again, she has been quite comfortable with that fact since a young age thanks to the values – and a love of Dolly Parton music – instilled in her by her recently-deceased Aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley). So when Willowdean discovers an incomplete entry form for the Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant among Lucy’s belongings, she decides to do her a posthumous solid and enter the pageant, where she swiftly realises she isn’t quite as comfortable in her own skin as she first suspected.
This is complicated by Willowdean’s atypical size triggering a kind of uprising against pageantry and the beauty standards it imposes on young, impressionable teen girls, enticing other contestants like fellow plus-size girl Millie Michalchuk (Maddie Baillio) and radical goth Hannah Perez (Bex Taylor-Klaus), and putting Willowdean at the forefront of what is essentially a resistance movement. The pressure is a bit much for her, and she’s forced to re-examine not just how she sees the world but how the world sees her.
Dumplin’ was directed by Anne Fletcher and adapted for the screen by Kristin Hahn, and while the script is hokey and frequently crumples under the weight of all the things it’s trying to say and do, Fletcher’s experience in helming movies about women helps to refocus the film’s attention on its strongest elements: namely Macdonald’s performance as Willowdean and Aniston’s as Rosie; two women who are close but nonetheless divided over how best to navigate the tangled web of societal expectations when it comes to how women should look. The problem is that the film’s intriguing social issues are mostly navigated through talismanic offerings to the liberal Gods, never with any finesse, and while the film’s leading pair are relatable and likable and well-developed, supporting personalities – including Willowdean’s best friend Ellen Dryver (Odeya Rush) – are frustratingly one-note and oftentimes cartoonish.
Dumplin’ is also slavishly devoted to the conventions of such stories; for all its rhinestone-studded allusions to glamorous rebellion, it’s mostly playing the same beats as ever. And that isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with that necessarily, but you’d think a film about subverting expectations would make more of an effort to actually do so.