Dumplin’ is by no means reinventing the YA wheel, and it does quite the opposite embracing the cliches of the genre, but you’ll have a hard time resisting this movie’s big-hearted charms.
A veteran of the romantic comedy with credits such as 27 Dresses and The Proposal, Anne Fletcher turns her attention to young adult with an adaptation of Julie Murphy’s novel. It tells the story of plus-size teenage girl Willowdean (Patti Cake$ breakout star Danielle Macdonald) who learned everything she knows about loving herself and the music of Dolly Parton from her free-spirited Aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley), of whom Willowdean is a spitting image.
Upon her passing, however, Willowdean is left stuck with her looks-obsessed beauty pageant alum mother, Rose (Jennifer Aniston). It was, after all, Aunt Lucy who really raised Willowdean while Rose was too busy being a local celebrity and was subconsciously ashamed of her daughter not looking like her.
Regardless, Willowdean continues to sing along in the car to Dolly Parton with her best friend Ellen (Lady Bird‘s Odeya Rush) while remembering all that Lucy taught her. The looming shadow of the town’s Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant comes around once again, but this time Willowdean decides, in an act of defiance against her mother, to sign herself up. This encourages two other unlikely candidates to also apply, the sunny and bubbly Millie (Maddie Baillio of Hairspray Live) and hard-edged feminist Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus). With that, an unexpected friendship blossoms between the young women who, in simply applying, prompt a rebellious act of feminism.
Of course, in this movie’s worldview, feminism comes not to disrupt the status quo (Willowdean’s original intent), but instead only slightly tweaks the norm. It’s in the “Health and Fitness” bathing suit competition portion of the pageant where Willowdean and Ellen together break new ground, one moment in a movie that otherwise quite mutedly expresses a feminist outlook.
A smash the patriarchy bit from Hannah, for example, is pushed aside for laughs. And this comes from a character who earlier on claimed their participating in the pageant is, in her words, “a revolt against the oppressive hetero-patriarchy unconsciously internalized by the female psyche.” The movie doesn’t fully lean into this notion as much as it could’ve, but this movie also isn’t striving to be a dark, scathing satire such as Drop Dead Gorgeous. The movie wants you to have a good time and feel good, and in that goal, it succeeds.
The performances across the board, from Macdonald’s charisma and sincerity to Aniston’s shift from hardened steadfastness to kind understanding, are affectionate works in tenderness and empathy. There’s not a truly mean spirit to be found, and while it works for the feel-good story clearly unfolding, it also diffuses the movie of virtually any ounce of conflict by the overlong running-time’s last half hour. Lucky for the movie, you forget any quibbles when it all comes to fruition in a final triumphant moment, where all attention is on Millie, the pageant’s runner-up, and once the winner gets announced, a generic skinny blonde, the movie cuts away, as it should.
And this is all without mentioning the best scene of the movie which is, naturally for the genre, a montage sequence. It begins when Willowdean takes Millie and Hannah to a bar outside of town that her Aunt Lucy used to frequent. They attend Dolly Parton night, of course, but much to their surprise, the performances are given by drag queens (the two leads are played by Ginger Minj and Harold Perrineau). This sparks a burst of inspiration in the young women, and they return to the bar to get help from the queens to perfect their looks and talents for the pageant. It’s a moment that encapsulates the entire spirit of the movie, and they all fittingly gather together again after the pageant before the final credits roll.
Of course, the real spirit hanging over the entirety of Dumplin’ is Dolly Parton. With six of her classic tunes and six new songs composed for the movie — one which just nabbed a Golden Globe nomination — her vivacity, energy, and messages on female empowerment, self-worth and living life on your own terms permeate throughout. Some might say the worshiping is a bit heavy-handed, but to that I say what about Dolly Parton was ever not been at least a little heavy-handed.