Jennifer Aniston and Danielle Macdonald take on the pageant world, to a Dolly Parton soundtrack, in this Netflix film.
“I’m not the Joan of Arc of fat girls,” says Willowdean Dickson (Danielle Macdonald), discouraging another plus-size teenager from entering, as she has, a beauty pageant. The likable heroine of Netflix’s Dumplin’, Willowdean is trying to make a point to her tightly wound mother (Jennifer Aniston), the former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet of 1991, who now runs the pageant and has neglected her daughter.
As she did in last year’s Patti Cake$, Macdonald shines brightly here, revealing both Willowdean’s insecurities and her grit as she deals with a crush on a hunky guy and forges ahead with a plan to show the pageant world that any body can be a swimsuit body. But her glowing performance simply calls attention to how creaky and formulaic the rest of Dumplin’ is. The Joan of Arc line is one of the few clever pieces of this well-meaning, teen-message movie about self-acceptance. Based on a 2015 best-selling YA novel by Julie Murphy, the film is as old-fashioned as its cringe-worthy title, a reference to the nickname Willowdean’s mother gave her as a child.
Even the setting, although contemporary, suggests a world lost in a time warp. Willowdean lives in Clover City, Texas, a dusty little place that looks like a brightly colored cartoon version of small-town America. She has just lost her beloved aunt, her mother’s sister (Hillary Begley, seen in sentimental flashbacks), who was also plus-sized, but attentive and loving to her niece, whom she taught to love Dolly Parton’s music.
Willowdean’s Dolly Parton worship comes from the book, and for the film Parton herself provides the soundtrack, her music floating through in older, reworked songs as well as six new ones written by her and Linda Perry. Willowdean’s best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush) has shared the Dolly obsession since childhood, and the two drive along in the car singing Parton songs, as typical teenagers don’t.
Real-life Parton fans shouldn’t expect wall-to-wall music. The songs, including “Here I Am” with Sia, are heard mostly in snippets. There is a longer stretch of “Girl in the Movies,” a single from Parton’s new soundtrack album, which is actually more a spinoff of the film.
The boy Willowdean likes is her part-time co-worker at a diner, Bo (Luke Benward), who has “heartthrob” and “prom king” written all over him. No one is more shocked than Willowdean when he likes her back, and those scenes are terrific examples of the layers Macdonald can add to a role. When Bo kisses her, she flees, embarrassed that he has touched her back fat. “Boys like Bo don’t date girls like me,” she tells Ellen, a stark recognition that however much Willowdean or her aunt accepted themselves, she knows the reality and the bias she’s up against.
Does Dumplin’ dare to let its heroine and the other characters reveal more complexity, as Willowdean does in that moment? If only. Instead, the pic slaps on neat solutions. Bo is quickly shown to be everyone’s dream boyfriend, who looks at Willowdean with unmistakable sincerity and says she’s beautiful.
In a supporting role, Aniston adds a slight Southern twang to her character, Rosie. She’s a perfectionist whose hair is in a teased and sprayed swirl, whose dieting is constant. We learn that, like her sister and daughter, Rosie was once plus-sized, too. “If she took better care of herself, she would probably still be here,” she says angrily about the sister she can hardly bring herself to mourn. It’s an insensitive statement that hints at the distress beneath her need for control, but any further insight is cut off there. Eventually her heart melts and Aniston gets a crying scene, but it seems pro forma, not earned.
Willowdean is, despite her early resistance, joined in the pageant by her friends, the plus-sized Millie (Maddie Bailillo) and the Goth-looking Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Hannah, especially, sees their presence as a radical act. But Dumplin’ never allows that protest to become edgy, despite the help the girls get from a coterie of drag-queen Dolly impersonators — stereotyped as the kindest, warmest people on Earth — who coach them on creating fabulous costumes and talent routines. The impersonators are led by Harold Perrineau, who sings “Jolene” in Dolly drag. He’s fun to watch, much more than the pageant that finally plays out, but, like Aniston, he deserves a film that gives him more than a cliche to play.
Director Anne Fletcher has made better rom-coms, like The Proposal, but they had better scripts. Written by producer Kristin Hahn, Dumplin’ clings timidly to its YA roots, which are firmly on the unsophisticated side of the spectrum. The pic is the opposite of another Netflix film, the popular To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. That much fresher example of a teen movie doesn’t get preachy. Its heroine manages to be wholesome yet knowing, stylish and relatable, and something like a real high-school kid.
Production companies: 50 Degrees Entertainment, Netflix, Cota Films
Cast: Danielle Macdonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Dove Cameron, Harrold Perrineau, Maddie Baillio, Bex Taylor-Kraus, Hillary Begley
Director: Anne Fletcher
Screenwriter: Kristin Hahn
Producers: Mohamed AlRafi, Michael Costigan, Kristin Hahn, Trish Hoffman
Director of photography: Elliot Davis
Production designer: Elizabeth J. Jones
Costume designer: Bina Daigeler
Editor: Emma E. Hickox
Music: Dolly Parton, Linda Perry, Jake Monaco
Casting: Cathy Sandrich Gelfond
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes