What you’ll make of Dumplin’, Netflix’s newest film release, may come down to your feelings about the music of Dolly Parton. In essence, this is an extended love letter to the Tennessee country music icon wrapped inside a sweet, but very muddled, coming of age story.
Willowdean (Danielle McDonald, Patti Cakes), the plus-size teenage daughter of former beauty queen Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), signs up for the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant as a ‘protest in heels’. Her actions inspire other ‘weirdos’ (another plus size girl and a goth) to join up for the pageant as well. Are they wasting their time or can their act of defiance change hearts and minds in their Texas hometown?
In many ways, Willowdean feels herself to be an outsider who is picked on by others because of her size. It doesn’t help that Mom calls her “Dumplin’” and that word comes to symbolise the underlying tensions between mother and daughter. There are a lot of inspirational messages here about love and self-acceptance interspersed between training montages. Yet, Dumplin’ just manages to avoid tipping into a completely saccharine mess.
Director Anne Fletcher (Hot Pursuit, The Guilt Trip) and writer Kristin Hahn (adapting the novel by Julie Murphy) go for an unexpected layer of emotion to counterbalance some of the sweeter moments. This approach works in places. Mother and daughter’s inability to communicate with one another leads to tense moments between the pair that splutter into silence more often than understanding as would happen in life. McDonald and Aniston both have the skill as performers to pull off the complex dynamics between Willowdean and her mother. Aniston’s work is understated and turns what could have been an over-the-top character into someone much subtler.
The premise may suggest bite, but this story rarely shows its teeth. The ‘weird girls’ protest doesn’t really amount to anything and this is a real pity because there was scope to push much harder against the pressures put on teenage girls to conform to societal expectations of physical beauty and how internalised shame about not attaining these standards can be hugely damaging.
Any sense of anger about the idea of pageants evaporates as the film progresses. These ideas could have been teased out more without sacrificing any warmth. Dumplin’s uneven pacing is also frustrating. The story takes far too long to get going before veering off-course and forgetting about the underdeveloped sub-plots left scattered about.
As a whole, Dumplin’ is saved by its third main character, Miss Parton. New music and re-interpreted classics from Dolly’s back catalogue dominate the film’s soundtrack. It’s the music that brings Dumplin’ to life with ‘Jolene’ and ‘Here You Come Again’ two particular highlights that re-energise proceedings.
The Netflix original releases in 2018 have been a mixed bag of offerings. Dumplin’ is nowhere close to the streaming giant’s coming of age megahit, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Instead, Dumplin’ is one for a lazy Saturday after a week of working ‘9 to 5’.