Dumplin’, the latest teen rom-com to hit Netflix, has a lot going for it. A plus-size female lead, a soundtrack of new and old Dolly Parton classics, and an empowering message of self-acceptance. The first two are wonderful; Danielle Macdonald shines as Willowdean and the movie is a celebration of Dolly Parton. There’s no better movie than Dumplin’ to introduce a new generation to the music of Dolly Parton. The film, like the book by Julie Murphy that it’s based on, celebrates the icon, using her music to propel Willowdean’s story forward and guide her journey toward self-acceptance.
Willowdean is protesting her small town’s beauty pageant, ran by her mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), by entering the pageant. Because she is bigger than the usual pageant girls, Willowdean’s entry is a disruption, especially when her entry encourages others to enter, like Millie (Maddie Baillio), a classmate who is constantly bullied because of her size, and Hannah (Bex Taylor-Kraus), a school misfit who is all about taking down the hetero-patriarchy. Of course, Ellen (Odeya Rush), Will’s best friend, enters in solidarity with her friend and new followers.
Part of what makes Dumplin’ interesting is how it’s at first centered around Will’s relationships to the people around her. It dives into Will’s friendship with Ellen, her contentious relationship with her mother, the grief she feels over losing her Aunt Lucy, and a burgeoning romance with her co-worker, Bo (Luke Benward). All of these relationships help inform who Will is and how she sees herself in one way or another. It ultimately leads Will to a bar outside of town, where her Aunt Lucy was a regular, and she meets Lucy’s friends, a group of drag queens who all perform as Dolly Parton. Leading the Dolly troupe is Lee (a fantastic performance from Harold Perrineau), who helps Will realize, through the words of Dolly Parton, that what Will thinks of herself is more important than whatever her mom, friends or crush think.
This is where the movie gets on shakier ground. There is no doubt that its message is empowering, but that kind of self-acceptance takes more than what Dumplin’ offers. The movie would have served its lead character better by digging deeper into the characters’ inner lives. Dumplin’ may market itself as bold and fearless, like Willowdean herself, but the script plays it safe, relying on formula and the usual character beats.
However predictable those beats may be, they are delightful with much thanks to a talented ensemble. Danielle Macdonald is wonderful as Willowdean aka Will aka Dumplin’. Where the script sometimes glosses over Will’s inner struggles, the personal beats she does get are imbued with emotion by Macdonald. The scenes she shares with Harold Perrineau are the best in the film; they are so full of love and sweetness, that you can’t help gush over them. Jennifer Aniston is unexpected choice to play a small town former beauty queen. Aniston doesn’t make her character a villain, simply a mother who loves her daughter but doesn’t know how to incorporate her into her pageant world. It’s a stark contrast to Will’s relationship with her Aunt Lucy, who taught her how to live in this world as whoever she wants to be.
Dumplin’ is a feel-good teen movie, one with a ton of heart and a ton of good music. Danielle Macdonald is a star. Like Patti Cake$, Dumplin’ is her showcase, proving she has both the comedic chops and emotional range to be a new force to reckon with in Hollywood. She’s the number one reason to watch Dumplin’.
Dumplin’ is now streaming on Netflix.