Director: Anne Fletcher
Cast: Danielle MacDonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush
Watch Dumplin’ online in the UK: Netflix UK
At first glance, Dumplin’ seems as if its going to be just another formulaic adaptation of a young adult novel about a girl, who is a bit different to her peers, ‘finding herself’ while arguing with her mother and falling for her charming coworker. But it becomes clear almost immediately that Dumplin’ is something different, something more.
Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald) is a confident, overweight young girl who is grieving for her aunt and struggling to maintain a relationship with her seemingly perfect mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), who seems to be more concerned with organising the town’s annual beauty pageant. Looking to prove a point, Willowdean decides to sign up for the pageant and is quickly followed by her friends, Ellen (Odeya Rush), Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and Millie (Maddie Baillio – who steals every scene she’s in).
The romantic subplot is exactly that: a subplot. Bo (Luke Benward) is sweet, dimpled, charming and supportive, and has no real impact on Willowdean’s story. Without him, she would have the same experiences and arrive at the same realisations, and it’s refreshing to see a young woman’s story that isn’t motivated or influenced by a male love interest. It’s only right that her relationship with Bo takes a back seat compared to her relationships with her friends, which provide the true heart of the story, particularly her relationship with childhood friend Ellen.
Dumplin’ is full of big characters, but arguably the biggest is the music and words of Dolly Parton, who wrote several new songs for the soundtrack. Whether it’s Willowdean and her aunt’s Dolly Parton parties, or her and Ellen quizzing each other on Dolly trivia, or drag queens performing karaoke, the characters’ love for Dolly is evident throughout. Her presence is felt from the opening scene to the last, her music and words constantly being referenced, but in a way that feels authentic to the characters, rather than just a way to try and make the film different.
It does feel like there’s potential to explore the character of Rosie, and her relationship with her daughter, more. Their relationship isn’t really examined in any depth until the last 30 minutes, which is a shame, because their scenes together are some of the more memorable. For most of the film, Rosie seems to just be a woman clinging on to her sense of importance and desperately trying to relive the glory days of her pageant queen youth. But there are moments that hint at her being much more. Aniston plays her so well, and it seems that there is a complex and layered character there, so it would’ve been nice to see more of her.
Dumplin’ manages to break the formula set by previous pageant films, and the way it does so has the potential to mean something different to the different people who watch it. For some, it will be a message of body positivity and confidence; for others, it will be a tribute to female friendship; and for others, it will be an exploration of how to cope with the loss of somebody you love, and how to hear their voice in your life when you need them most. It would be easy for a film that is doing so much to slip into being contrived or cheesy, but with a sprinkle of glitter and a healthy helping of Dolly Parton magic, this is a story that will tug on your heartstrings one moment, and make you laugh and want to partake in karaoke the next.
Dumplin’ is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.