Sweet-tooth movies are never really given a chance in this world. Stories, where the majority of characters turn out attentive and kind, are blasted as unrealistic and impractical. While this may be true, this doesn’t mean such ‘fluffy’ films are devoid of meaning or not worth celebrating. Dumplin’ might not be the most creative of films or necessarily the wittiest, nevertheless, it’s still a film brimming with comfort, body positivity, and lessons on how to love yourself in a world that constantly tells you not to – and that’s absolutely worth something.
Photo © Bob Mahoney / Netflix
Directed by Anne Fletcher (27 dresses, The Proposal), Dumplin’ tells the story of Texas dwelling high-schooler Willowdean Dickson (Danielle Macdonald) and her over-bearing pageant queen mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston). The title Dumplin’ comes from the well-meaning but offensive nickname adorned to the plus-size Willowdean by her mother. Because of remarks like this, Willowdean feels that Rosie is privately ashamed of her daughter’s size because she doesn’t conform to pageant standards. This is something which spurs on Willowdean’s rebellion throughout the film.
As a child, Willowdean held a close bond to her aunt Lucy; as they both shared a joyous obsession with Dolly Parton – whose songs are featured heavily throughout the film. After Lucy’s death, Willowdean is clearing through her aunt’s possessions where she finds an unfinished beauty pageant entry form that Lucy had filled out as a teenager. Determined to finish what her aunt Lucy had started, she decides to sign up to the local beauty pageant, that Rosie oversees, to show her traditionalist by-the-rule-book mother that any-size-body can enter such contests. From here, Willowdean and a band of misfits spark a good-ol’ anti-establishment ‘revolution’ against the Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant.
Photo © Bob Mahoney / Netflix
Fletcher has a knack for managing to scatter humane and delicate moments throughout her films – it’s hard to argue that Dumplin’ is a project without a lot of heart. She presents an admirable and realistic stance on self-acceptance and female solidarity. The film generally avoids the loathsome ‘pretty girls’ vs the ‘outsider girls’ trope dumped in many teen flicks – which is a relief. It’s a film exuding empathy and thought to its character’s situations and evades pitting different women against each other or criticizing the act of being feminine. In this way, it reminds me a bit of Miss Congeniality (2000) in its ability to touch a subject as dividing as beauty pageants without asserting a wave of misogyny and judgement onto its participants.
Although Dumplin’ strictly follows many rules of the teen female drama (a crush on an ‘unattainable’ boy, a protagonist who doesn’t fit into cookie cutter moulds, and high-schoolers who seemingly never attend any classes), it avoids one of the most poisonous tropes of the genre; the notion that a weight loss or drastic makeover is needed for the protagonist to love herself. For many female-targeted movies or series containing a plus size protagonist, a reduction in size is needed for the individual to reach their ‘best-self’ or to gain popularity – this is showcased in Netflix’s horrendously controversial Insatiable. Fortunately, this is a cruelty steered clear of completely in Dumplin’. Willowdean’s weight is never the butt of any jokes and her insecurities are never trivialized or solely defining of her character.
Photo © Photo by Bob Mahoney / Netflix
While gracious and tolerant, Dumplin’ does stumble in its attempt at comedy and wit. There are some great comical segments featuring a crew of Dolly Parton impersonating drag queens, but the rest of the film lacks such natural comedic charm. Instead, the jokes feel a little flat and predictable, or just altogether feel out of place. It’s nothing you wouldn’t find in any of the other teen flicks that Netflix cranks out every month. Jennifer Aniston works wonders as she usually does but there’s only so much you can do with such underwhelming writing.
Nevertheless, Dumplin’ is a film that is certainly needed today; waving a flag of sweetness, acceptance, and self-love. Albeit clumsy and repetitive with some of its humour, it more than makes up for this with its warmth and nurturing nature. If Netflix is going to keep churning out cheesy teen flicks – which of course, they should – then they should all aspire to be a little bit more like Dumplin’.
Written by Abi Aherne