When it comes down to it, Dumplin’ doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before. It’s a tale of self-acceptance and growing up through the framework of competition and community. However, it still manages to be a solid coming-of-age story with a handful of relatable characters.
Willowdean (Patti Cake$ star Danielle Macdonald) was practically raised by the duo of her aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley) and Dolly Parton music, despite the fact that she lived with her mom Rosie (Jennifer Aniston) too. Rosie was always more concerned with her pageants and maintaining appearances, and Willowdean preferred Lucy’s carefree attitude and confidence. The fact that her mom always called her the embarrassing nickname Dumplin’ didn’t help endear her in the slightest. The mother and daughter tolerated their coexistence, but that all changed when Lucy passed away. Now, Willowdean has no one to buffer her from her mother’s constant judgment.
We see Rosie in and out of her scrubs throughout the film, but the only aspect of her life she’s ever interested in expressing is her role as beauty queen. When she won her title and crown back in high school, her life essentially peaked. When that same annual Miss Teen Bluebonnet competition comes around once again, Willowean decides to take it down from the inside in order to get on her mother’s nerves and prove a point. Along to help are her best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush), fellow big-girl Millie (Maddie Baillio), and a riot grrl named Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus). During the weeks leading up to the pageant, they all learn about themselves, test their friendships, and have a few hilarious montages of practicing their talent competition entries.
Nothing about Dumplin’ pushes any boundaries or adds anything to the current cinematic catalogue of teenage tales, but it does have a lot of heart. Seeing these women discover their own inner strengths, and learn to empathize with people who are different is a valuable message, regardless of how many times it has already been told. Aniston and Macdonald both play their characters as emotionally stunted and feel related, despite the obvious disparity in appearance. We know that Willowdean will eventually accept herself as she is, but watching another thick-skulled teenager refuse to believe she’s worthy of love does get a little trying.
I should not fail to mention the drag queens. The strong culture of drag pageants and showmanship is not lost in Dumplin’, and these queens get plenty of screen time showing off what they do best. That, combined with the original music by Dolly Parton and a celebration of her back catalogue, will hit a very niche sweet spot for certain audiences (myself included).
Dumplin’ does what it sets out to do, with little thematic flourish but a lot of sequins.