This young adult tale of a plus size pageant girl tells its audience: find out who you are, then do it on purpose.
What better way to get into the festive spirit than with a sequinned story of sisterhood and self-acceptance? Based on Julie Murphy’s young adult novel, Dumplin’ follows Willowdean Opal Dickson (Danielle Macdonald), a big girl in a small town, as she enters the local beauty pageant to prove a point to her mother. That point gets a little muddled as the film progresses, but luckily the film is anchored by a generosity of spirit, a killer soundtrack, and strong performances from its young cast of newcomers.
Going into a pageant movie, you’d be forgiven for expecting some cattiness, but Dumplin’ rarely pits its female characters against each other, instead showing how working together helps the girls develop their own confidence. Willowdean looks down on the pageant girls at first because she feels they belong to a superficial world that would never accept her, but by the time the credits roll she has learned that everybody is on their own journey. Although I could have done with one or more two scenes showcasing the absurdity of pageant life, like the one where Willowdean and best friend Ellen lift a horizontal Rosie out of the backseat of a car so her hair and dress remain perfect.
One minor quibble is that, while Macdonald is good in the lead role, the film continually introduces her to a carousel of oddball characters who have the potential to be much more interesting but are forced to stay on the sidelines by virtue of not being the protagonist. They include patriarchy-smashing punk Hannah, who spouts slogans and mugs menacingly but is given little depth, drag queen Rhea Ranged, who fulfils the fairy godmother role, and even best friend Ellen, who after a plot-convenient fight is absent for much of the film’s middle. This is most likely because the filmmakers wanted the viewer to focus on Willowdean’s story alone, and Dumplin’ never strays far from that (with the exception of fellow plus size pageant girl Millie, whose “ugly duckling” arc is one of the film’s high points).
At least the film knows how to deploy the talents of Jennifer Aniston, who is great as Willowdean’s former beauty queen mother. Another film might have turned Rosie into a grotesquely overbearing cliché, but Dumplin’ invites you to see her side of things too. She has a completely different outlook on life to her daughter, and they have next to nothing in common, but it is clear that Rosie is doing her best as a single parent with limited resources — when not coaching girls and taking in dresses, she works at a care home to make ends meet (something that Willowdean never seems to really appreciate, but hey, this is a teen movie).
Ultimately, though, your appreciation of this film will live or die on how much Dolly Parton you can endure in its 100 minute running time. Willowdean’s opening narration establishes just how much the beloved country star means to her, and Parton’s songs and quotes punctuate the film to the point that it almost feels like an extended music video. The film was even marketed as featuring brand new songs by Parton, and “Girl In The Movies” (which plays briefly over a pivotal scene and in full during the end credits) is quintessential Dolly; mournful but knowingly playful at the same time. While the Dollyisms do sometimes seem to function as emotional signposts in the script in place of actual writing, there is no other musician whom this film could have been built around. Dumplin’, like Dolly, has a heart of gold — although it could still learn a thing or two from her about taking yourself too seriously.