As Netflix expand their overwhelming amount of original content to encapsulate seemingly every area of entertainment, they unexpectedly struck gold in their investment in rom-coms and YA adaptations. From The Kissing Booth to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and beyond, the streaming giant slowly understood something that certain audiences have been screaming about for years: Give the people what they want and they will come. Now, before 2018 comes to an end, Netflix have given us Dumplin’, Anne Fletcher’s adaptation of the best-selling young adult novel by Julie Murphy.
Australian actress Danielle Macdonald (who you may recognize from Patti Cake$) plays Willowdean Dixon, a Texas teen who, despite the best efforts of almost everyone around her, is comfortable as a plus-size girl in her small pageant-obsessed town. Her mother Rosie (Jennifer Aniston) runs the local Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant, an event she won in her youth that seems to be the peak of her life, and doesn’t seem to have much time for her own kid. Willowdean, nicknamed Dumplin’ by her mother, is mourning the loss of her aunt Lucy, who taught her self-confidence and Dolly Parton wisdom. In her memory, and partly to get back at Rosie, Willowdean enters the pageant but gets more emotionally entangled than anticipated.
A lot of reviews for Dumplin’ talk about its clichés, its convenient ending, and its buzzword wisdom. With all due respect, I don’t think these critics get it. Yes, you know where Dumplin’ is going and how everything will wrap up. That’s not the point the film or Willowdean want to make. It’s a simple story of minor revolution through the radical act of being yourself on purpose.
There are dozens of stories about teen girls finding self-acceptance, but to put it bluntly, none of those girls look like Willowdean. Danielle Macdonald, an endlessly charismatic presence with just the right balance of snark and tenderness, isn’t the kind of actress who gets cast as the relatable adolescent. In an industry where body positivity has been co-opted by the skinny, and ‘plus-size’ clothing lines end at 16, you suddenly realize how rare it is to see this sort of story with this sort of woman at the centre of it. This isn’t just about what Macdonald looks like - she’s sharp with a one-liner, is a magnetic personality, and brings the right level of abrasiveness to Willowdean - but watching her be the undisputed star of this story is a painful reminder of how little we see that. There’s probably a studio executive somewhere who wanted to put a Disney Channel star in a fatsuit for this role. Praise Dolly we don’t live in that timeline.
Willowdean is a rarity in pop culture - a fat girl who isn’t defined by her size. She’s funny, jaded by the small-town mentality around her, driven, often insecure, but also aware of societal bullsh*t that keeps her down. She understands that there’s probably an inherent contradiction in hating these constricting beauty standards while still being bothered by them, but that doesn’t make the insecurities go away. It’s not so much that she hates herself - mercifully, that’s another cliché of stories about plus-size people that Dumplin’ avoids - but that even at her most confident she struggles to turn off the voices in her head that tell her she’s not ‘right’ for this town, this pageant, and this cute boy who is clearly all kinds of hot for her.
The story of Dumplin’ is slight, but as any good pageant queen will tell you, the devil is in the details. Willowdean finds a kindly troupe of drag queens - as you do - to act as fairy godparents (Ginger Minj from RuPaul’s Drag Race is sadly underused but makes the most with scant screen-time, and it’s so good to see Harold Perrineau back in drag after Romeo + Juliet). Joining her in her crusade is her best-friend El, the conventionally pretty one who elicits unwanted jealously in Willowdean, baby punk Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus), and Millie (Maddie Baillio), an endlessly cheery church girl who responds to school bullies’ fat jokes with a turn-the-other-cheek smile and takes her pageant dreams very seriously.
Dumplin’ is low stakes in terms of narrative but high emotion at all times. Not gonna lie, I cried through like 40% of this film, and it wasn’t all because of the Dolly Parton music. But yes, the all-Dolly soundtrack, including several new songs, is a major selling point for the film. Ms. Parton is the real guiding light of Dumplin’, the ever-wise dispenser of wisdom to misfits everywhere, one who’s always in on the joke and ten steps ahead of everyone else. In a non-A Star is Born year, the poignant number ‘Girl in the Movies’ would be the Best Original Song front-runner.
Jennifer Aniston is very good as Rosie, although the Texan accent leaves much to be desired (not that she’s alone on that front in this film). There’s so much more to untangle about this woman, a deeply insecure figure whose life has been wholly defined by a beauty pageant she won as a teenager and the depressing joy she takes in being the most minor of celebrities. Her relationship with her late sister is sadly reduced to a handful of lines, and there’s little given to how emotionally fraught it must be for her to essentially be the backup mother to her own child. I do get why this role would be so appealing to Aniston (she’s a producer and her production partner Kristin Hahn is the screenwriter) and it is admittedly good to see her willingly play second fiddle to Macdonald. Where their dynamic works best is in its refusal to position their semi-estranged relationship as a black and white issue. Aniston is no cartoon here, nor are her worries over seeing her daughter enter the pageant world.
Some more time could have been spent developing Rosie’s journey to overcome her deep-seated assumptions about her own kids, but Anne Fletcher still makes a little go a long way. Fletcher has directed a number of rom-coms that are way better than you remember them being, such as 27 Dresses and The Proposal. She has a gentle touch but isn’t afraid to amp up the emotions if need be, and she keenly gets how the best things in rom-coms are often the stuff completely separate from romance. In 27 Dresses, the most tender scenes come from Katherine Heigl dealing with her resentment towards her sister. In The Proposal, Sandra Bullock finding family with Ryan Reynolds packs a bigger punch than them getting together. You could probably remove the romance from Dumplin’ and the story’s arc would feel no less complete, although it is intensely satisfying to see Macdonald get it on with the undisputed hottest guy in the area.
When the Summer of Love began this year, thanks to the revival of the rom-com’s critical and commercial fortunes, a lot of the usual voices sneered that these stories were derivative and did nothing to challenge the genre’s trappings. They failed to realize how telling familiar narratives with people who never get the luxury of such happy endings in pop culture is a breath of fresh air unto itself. It’s not just about sharing the joys of an old-school heart-warming happy-ever-after; it’s a rallying cry that everyone deserves their own story. Is Dumplin’ simple and predictable? Sure, but you’ve still never seen this story quite like this before.
Dumplin’ is now available to watch on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Netflix