I was fortunate enough to see Patti Cake$ (2017) on the big screen at the Florida Film Festival. Since then, I’ve been praising Danielle Macdonald as an actress to look out for, and her new film Dumplin’ (2018) confirmed my earlier notion. The Netflix original directed by Anne Fletcher (The Proposal (2009), The Guilt Trip (2012)) is a great film full of young talent that tackles some tough issues while never going too melodramatic. Dumplin’ will make you laugh, cry, and feel a sense of community that you rarely see in a film set in Texas centered around the pageant scene.
Dumplin’ is a feel good comedy with a heart that is worth the Netflix subscription
Willowdean (Macdonald) is the daughter of a former beauty queen (Jennifer Aniston) who now runs the annual Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant. Will doesn’t exactly fit the body type of the pageant girls, but with the recent passing of her beloved aunt motivates her to join out of protest. The thing is, her action motivates a few other people who had been hiding in the shadows with their own agendas towards the pageant scene and they follow in her footsteps. Now Will finds herself as the unwitting leader of this revolution while dealing with the loss of her beloved aunt, normal teenage life, and her own insecurities.
A major star of this film who has been left out of this review to this point is Dolly Parton. Now, Dolly doesn’t actually show up in the movie, but her name, music, and image – there are several pictures of her throughout the film – permeate and is a centerpiece to Will’s connection with her Aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley). In fact, some of the funnier, and often equally touching, moments involve a group of tribute performers to the country diva. Dolly’s presence is felt throughout and the spirit of the legendary performer is embedded in the message the film is conveying; “Figure out who you are and do it on purpose.”
Macdonald gives a terrific performance and is definitely able to carry any film that she is given the opportunity in which to do so. This time, her supporting cast also shines. Going into this film with only knowledge of the premise I expected Aniston to be an evil, mean-spirited woman who was ashamed of her overweight daughter. Her character is easily one of the most refreshing aspects of this story. In fact, there is no over-the-top villain in this film and I often find that refreshing. Life is full of people who are just part-time assholes. We have blind spots that we don’t even realize how judgemental or mean we are being sometimes, but it doesn’t mean we want to hurt them. While there are some bully types in the high school moments, they are even treated as immature brats with no real agenda other than getting their idiot friends to laugh.
Thus, when we step back and look at the world that Will lives in we see it not as a hellscape with clear demons everywhere looking to hurt her, but rather a portrait that resembles the real world and all the flaws and joys that lie within. Will, loving called Dumplin’ by her mother yet despised by Will for the term’s implicit meaning, moves through her world cautiously avoiding being hurt by keeping up protective barriers while still enjoying her life. Ultimately, she has to learn that it’s not about other people but loving herself for who she is and being proud of that. A message that is good for all of us to learn, remember and cherish.
Will isn’t the only “big” girl to enter the pageant as Millie (Maddie Baillio) joins her side. Will responds with, “I’m not the Joan of Arc of fat girls,” and Millie had already been depicted as dimwitted as she laughed off insults thrown at her. Though Millie’s approach to life is definitely much more optimistic than Will’s, her character has complexity and offers a different perspective on the same situation. She finds her own voice over the course of the journey and gets some extremely powerful moments to boot.
Then there is Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus)the stereotypical punk-rock girl who just wants to stick it to the beauty queens. Taylor-Klaus was also in Hell Fest earlier this year and so far I don’t like her style of performance. She feels like an actress playing a character and always seems to be winking at the camera. That kind of worked in Hell Fest, but feels extremely out of place in this movie that is painting such a realistic world. Still, her style much like the character of Hannah seems to shift over the course of the film and you can’t help but cheer for her as well.
Will’s best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush) is great, but does feature one of the few melodramatic moments and probably the cheesiest scene in the film. I won’t get into why or how as that would be a spoiler, but it was the only part in the movie where I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Still, Rush gives another solid performance and proves she doesn’t have to be a mean girl even though she would clearly fit into that role. The bond between her and Will is so great and their backstory only reminds you of the importance of Dolly Parton to the movie and the characters.
I honestly could keep going because there is so much to love about Dumplin’. I connected with the story, the characters, and was reminded that no genre of music is ever off limits. There has to be a quick mention of Harold Perrineau and how excellent I thought he was in the movie, but I won’t reveal what role he plays as to not ruin the experience that I had with it. If you have Netflix do yourself a favor and watch this movie, as Dumplin’ earns the Must See rating.