Working with boatloads of charm and winning performances from Jennifer Aniston and Danielle MacDonald, this plus-sized pageant comedy is a real winner for Netflix.
It almost seems like Dumplin’ is Netflix’s mea culpa for its highly controversial dark comedy TV series Insatiable. Both deal with pageants and fat shaming, but while Insatiable is cynical, satirical, and mean-spirited, Dumplin’ is sincere, heartwarming, and sweeter than meemaw’s sweet tea. Also, the movie doesn’t commit the faux pas of having the lead actress wear a fat suit. Netflix acquired the distribution rights for the film in September 2018 (after Insatiable debuted and was roundly criticized for its portrayal of overweight people), so for all we know this is a way to make them seem more sympathetic to plus-sized women. We’ll never know if that’s really the case, but regardless Dumplin’ is a sweet film that inoffensively satisfies.
Based on the book of the same name by Julie Murphy written by Jennifer Aniston‘s producing partner Kristin Hahn and directed by Anne Fletcher (Step Up, 27 Dresses), Dumplin’ is the nickname for plus-sized Texas teen Willowdean Dickson (Danielle MacDonald, Patti Cake$). She idolizes her late aunt, Lucy (Hillary Begley) and Dolly Parton (who provides the film’s music) while resenting her ex-beauty queen and pageant coordinator mother, Rosie (Aniston).
While going through Lucy’s things, Willowdean discovers her aunt’s unfinished entry for the “Miss Teen Blue Bonnet” pageant. This inspires WIllowdean to enter the pageant as a protest with her best friend, Ellen Dryver (Odeya Rush). This inspires fellow misfits Millie Michalchuck (Maddie Baillio) and Hannah Perez (Bex Taylor-Klaus) to join. While Willowdean is at first apprehensive of the pageant, she soon realizes she enjoys herself – with the assistance of a pair of drag queens (Harold Perrineau and Ginger Minj), Willowdean is set to prove the town and herself that she can do great things.
The premise of a misfit trying out the world of pageantry isn’t exactly new, but Dumplin’ does a few things to keep the premise fresh. One of the more original aspects is that the main antagonist of Dumplin’ isn’t the fellow pageant contestants, but Willowdean herself. The film implies that Willowdean is more insecure than she realizes, making her judgmental of her mother and the other contestants as a defense mechanism. Willowdean’s insecurity leads to a falling out when Ellen begins to enjoy the pageant, and keeps her from accepting the advances of prep school hunk Bo (Luke Benward). While most “misfit takes on beauty pageant” narratives have a heroine who only needs to challenge the world’s assumptions, Dumplin’ makes the refreshing move of making its main character realize that she has assumptions of her own.
The characters in Dumplin’ are constantly subverting expectations – whether it’s a seedy looking biker bar that hosts Dolly Parton drag shows, the conservative Millie turning out to love said drag shows, and (most shockingly of all in these sorts of movies) beauty pageant contestants who are nice to the nontraditional contestants.
Perhaps the most surprising twist is Aniston’s portrayal of Rosie. While most movies would have Rosie be excessively vain or critical of Willowdean, it’s clear from Aniston’s performance that she does care about her daughter and hurt by WIllowdean’s dismissals.
While this nuanced portrayal of the pageant world is refreshing, it has the occasional effect of making Willowdean’s motivations unclear. Most of the fat shaming in Dumplin’ is more tell than show; yes, there are a few bullies in school, and Willowdean gets a few side eyes when she signs up for the pageant, but for the most part nobody mentions her weight. Even Rosie, who Willowdean is always accusing of fat shaming, barely mentions her daughter’s weight, her protests mostly about Willowdean’s refusal to take the pageant seriously (which, admittedly, is fair). It would have also been nice if Willowdean had more interaction with the other contestants besides the other misfits, so we could see more of how she has misjudged them.
Despite the muddling of her motivation, Willowdean is a charming protagonist, with MacDonald portraying her with warmth and spunk (and a convincing Texas accent – I didn’t know she was Australian until I checked IMDb). She has great chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially Rush – the pair really do feel like best friends. The cast as a whole is fun and energetic; even when you have an idea where the story is going, you want to see these characters get there. It’s the kind of film that earns its feel-good ending, which is always nice to see.
Whether or not Netflix acquired Dumplin’ to atone for Insatiable, a streaming service is the perfect home for a sleeper charmer like this. Dumplin’ is a good film, but not quite masterful enough to justify a trip to the theater. The story is sweet and charming, but a little insubstantial; the acting is solid but workmanlike; and the visuals are serviceable in that slightly-stylish-indie kind of way. In these respects, the film is like its namesake food – it’s not the grandest meal, but when you’re in the mood for it, it’s truly delicious.