If there are two things that are going to make a film an automatic hell yes for me, it is Dolly Parton and drag queens. As it happens, Netflix’s latest original movie release Dumplin’ promised both. Add in the fact that I still enjoy the novelty of being able to watch a brand new release from the comfort of my warm bed, a hot toddy or two, and I was surely guaranteeing myself one HELL of a Friday night.
Adapted from the hugely successful young adult novel of the same name by Julie Murphy, Dumplin’ tells the story of Willowdean Dickson (Danielle Macdonald), a Dolly Parton obsessed plus size teenager from a small Texas town who, in a form of protest against her beauty queen mother (played by Jennifer Aniston), signs up for the community event of the year, the town pageant. Fuelled by the death of her loving aunt and inspired by a supportive new friendship group, Willowdean, or Dumplin’ as her mother calls her, goes on a journey of self discovery and comes of age amidst a back drop of pageant fun and personal drama.
In terms of the beats that it hits and narrative directions that it takes, Dumplin’ is a standard and familiar feeling coming of age story, but there is something about the heart and warmth of the film that really makes it feel like it has magic dust sprinkled all over it. This isn’t the type of film you might be expecting in terms of the ‘fat girl’ entering a pageant and having to deal with prejudice and sabotage from bitchy competitors. In fact, outside of the tensions between Dumplin’ and her mother, her biggest antagonist in the film is herself, and the fight that she goes through in order to become a newer, better, more confident version of the person that she really has always been.
Dumplin’ is feel good, it is funny, it is heartwarming, pretty much all of those adjectives that describe a film you can’t help but smile the entire way through. Thanks to the Southern setting and the nostalgic references to the legendary Dolly Parton, there is just something overwhelmingly comfortable about the viewing experience. It’s the perfect example of a film that has familiar plot lines and threads, but that is executed so well that you don’t mind being carried along for the conventional feeling ride. I often criticise films for not taking risks, but in the case of Dumplin’, any overt risk taking would have put a dent in the cosy, homely feel of the story telling.
There’s no denying that Willowdean’s size is a key plot point within the narrative, but rather than having her weight be something detrimental to her character, or something that the she tries to change during the movie, the film instead showcases the fact that plus size people do anything the fuck they want to do, and achieve anything the fuck they want to achieve without having to constantly apologise for themselves or undergo physical transformations. All of Willowdean’s growth has everything to do with her state of mind and nothing to do with her physical shape, and that’s a wonderful thing to see in ‘mainstream’ cinema.
Between Dumplin’ and last year’s Patti Cake$, Danielle Macdonald has provided me with some of the most endearing and fun film characters over the last couple of years. As Willowdean, she gives an incredibly relatable performance. Whether it’s weight, lack of self esteem, a tension with your mother or trying to navigate the minefield of female friendships, there is at least one thing in Macdonald’s charming representation that you will connect with. To think that I now want to be best friends with the actress who creeped me the hell out in 2014’s Every Secret Thing is massive testament to her versatility!
As Dumplin’s former beauty queen mother Rosie, Jennifer Aniston gives a solid performance, tasked with being the sort of ‘straight man’ of the piece, but clever casting nonetheless as her on screen presence to anyone around my age brings another level of nostalgia to add to the feel good nature of the movie. Aniston isn’t required to dig anymore near as deep as something like her impressive turn in 2014’s Cake, but together her and Macdonald make for an enjoyable on screen mother/daughter pair.
There are a bunch of fun supporting performances given by the likes of Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio and Bex Taylor-Klaus, and there is even a little sprinkling of glam in the form of Ginger Minj, a firm favourite among fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race! With fellow Drag Race alumni Shangela and Willam also gracing our screens this year in none other than A Star Is Born, these ladies are really putting the show on the cinematic map!
Overall, you be surprised to hear that I really loved Dumplin’. Is it the greatest film ever to grace the screen? No. Does that matter? Not in the the slightest. There is something magic about a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, and Dumplin’ feels just like the foodstuff that it is named after, a wonderful, warming, comfortable treat hits all of the right spots and makes you feel really good. Not to mention, all that Dolly Parton love!