The hit 2015 YA novel Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy features a girl who’s deeply inspired by the music and life of Dolly Parton. The singer learned about the book – and a short time later got a call from actress Jennifer Aniston, who optioned that book for a movie. The Netflix film version is both a Parton tribute and a behind the tiara look at the pageantry world.
Danielle Macdonald, who gave a breakthrough performance in last year’s little-seen “Patti Cake$” stars as Willowdean Dickson. She’s a plus-size high school student living with her mom is a small Texas town. And she’s self-conscious about her weight. The fact that Willowdean’s mom Rosie (played by Aniston) has always called her “Dumplin’” doesn’t help.
Rosie won the local Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant back in 1991 and still considers it her life’s crowning achievement. She’s been running the pageant for more than a decade and is so focused on the pageant world that she’s never taken the time to raise her daughter.
That role went to Willowdean’s aunt Lucy. She’s the one who fostered a love of Dolly Parton music in the young girl. When Lucy dies, Rosie has to finally step-up and try to be a mother. Not surprisingly, there are conflicts, many involving Willowdean’s weight. To get back at her mom, Willowdean decides to enter the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant, looking to prove to everyone that size doesn’t matter.
The first half of “Dumplin’” is a bit rigid. The “mother v. daughter” theme and behind the scenes pageant setting is too familiar. Many of the scenes play corny and flat, and the direction of the story seems obvious. But then the tone takes a nice turn, as Willowdean receives guidance from some Dolly Parton drag queens. One of them advises the teen not to mock or sabotage the pageant – but to make it her own.
Earlier this year, the Miss America organization announced major shifts in their philosophy, including re-structuring their event as a competition and not simply a battle of beauty limited to tall, ultra-thin women. This all took place after “Dumplin’” was filmed. One of the more interesting aspects of the second half of “Dumplin'” is seeing how the movie was a bit ahead of its time.
The script (by producer Kristin Hahn) deliver a few chuckles during the pageant prep scenes. But its main focus is the mother-daughter relationship. Director Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal”, “The Guilt Trip”) has made a safe, sweet film with two strong leads who pull-off their roles with ease. Just as she did in “Patti Cake$”, Macdonald allows you to sympathize with and genuinely root for Willowdean. And Aniston handles Rosie, including her ultimate transformation, quite well.
Surprisingly, Parton doesn’t make an on-screen cameo appearance. But several of her all-time hits are assertively incorporated throughout, along with half a dozen new tracks. Song “Girl in the Movies” is only heard briefly around the halfway mark, but it’s one of the year’s best. Parton balances “Dumplin’”’s story with her influence on this film to create a rich, memorable anthem.