Dumplin’ (Anne Fletcher, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.
A mostly sweet, if sometimes saccharine, coming-of-age tale of self-actualization that takes a firm stand against monolithic views of body image, Dumplin’, out on Netflix starting December 7, goes down easy, its conflicts resolved without lingering drama. Based on the eponymous 2015 novel by Julie Murphy, directed by Anne Fletcher (The Proposal), and starring Danielle Macdonald (Patti Cake$), Jennifer Aniston (Mother’s Day) and delightful newcomer Maddie Baillio, among others, the film may have its occasional narrative flaws, yet ultimately emerges as a fulfilling feel-good story with the happiest of vibes. Add a Dolly Parton soundtrack and a bevy of drag queens, and what’s not to like?
Indeed, from the very start, Parton is front and center as the icon of young Willowdean’s childhood, her “Dumb Blonde” sung along to with glee. Willowdean, aka Will, aka Dumplin’ (her mother’s unfortunate nickname for her), is a big girl – and will shortly grow into Macdonald – but is loved unreservedly by her adoring (and adored) larger-than-life (in all ways) Aunt Lucy, who introduces Will to Parton early on. The legendary singer, who never actually appears in the film, looms large throughout, her unapologetic embrace of her poor Appalachian background and subsequent sequined glory an inspiration to all misfits who want to make good. Sadly, by the time the main movie begins, post-prologue, Aunt Lucy is dead, though her legacy lives on within Will’s imagination.
Unfortunately for our heroine, her mother Rosie (Aniston) is the antithesis of Lucy. She’s a former beauty queen, still runs the local pageant, and is all thin, nervous energy, unsure how to handle her daughter’s differences from herself. Sure, she loves her little Dumplin’, but there are limits. When Willowdean decides to sign up for this year’s beauty competition to make a point, Rosie is horrified, sure that it’s just a joke meant to ruin all that she holds dear. That everything works out quite differently is the joy of the movie, even when the sentimentality threatens to overwhelm the solid charms of the performers and the script.
As good as Macdonald may be, it’s Baillio who is the real standout. She plays Millie, another plus-size high-schooler with dreams of a better life. Unlike Will, Millie has long wanted to be in a pageant. Neither of them seems to stand a chance, at least initially, but they bond after a trip to a local bar’s Dolly Parton night (which is when the drag queens show up), and accompanied by another outcast, the androgynous (i.e., probably, though never explicitly, gay) Hannah, played by Bex Taylor-Klaus (The Night Is Ours). With the help of their new Parton-impersonator friends, they learn some useful tricks (in Will’s case, literal tricks, as her talent is magic) to help them strut their stuff. Yes, it’s corny and reductive, but also satisfying. Sometimes, that’s all we need.