Director: Anne Fletcher
Starring: Danielle Macdonald, Jennifer Aniston, Luke Benward, Odeya Rush, Dove Cameron, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Harold Perrineau, Maddie Baillio
The streaming giants who I always have fun with – they’re like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get! (I came up with that). For Netflix, 2018 started off like a ball of dung but has steadily improved as the year has rolled on. Overall, they’ll probably end the year with a mixed bag of releases though I have to say there have been some very good ones unleashed recently. Would Dumplin’ join the hallowed ranks of good Netflix releases or would it jump into bed with Bright, The Cloverfield Paradox etc...
Willowdean Dickson (Macdonald), AKA Dumplin’, is the plus-sized daughter of former Miss Teen Bluebonnet beauty queen Rosie (Aniston) who always shared a greater affinity with her aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley). Together, Dumplin’ and Lucy would have Dolly Parton parties and dance the days away listening to the Queen of Country whilst her mother was out living the glamorous life of a young beauty. Feeling neglected by Rosie’s lack of attention over the years, Dumplin’ decides to sign up for the beauty pageant in an act of defiance and rebellion. When her BFF Ellen (Rush), super-positive Millie (Baillio) and snarky feminist Hannah (Taylor-Klaus) follow her lead, the revolution is set. But the power of the pageant is strong and through body-shaming and doubt, Dumplin’ channels the spirit of Dolly Parton and decides to give it a real go.
The good and relieving news is that Dumplin’ is very good. With all Netflix movies, it’s fair to get the opinion out of the way early. This is a very good movie that hits all the right beats – it’s funny, it’s touching, it’s entertaining and it carries a real authenticity to it. Throughout, the body shaming angle is prominent – it’s what fuels our lead character (and others) – but it never felt overdone or gratuitous. You are supposed to feel for Willowdean (Will, for short, another aspect of her character) but Anne Fletcher doesn’t have you wallowing or drowning in mawkish sympathy which is crucial. The performance of Danielle Macdonald (of Patti Cake$ fame) is again assured and top-grade. Her vulnerability and compassion gave the character real depth and her journey is warranted – how she deals with her handsome colleague's advances, Ellie’s early embracing of the pageant and Millie’s confidence together baffle, sadden and embolden the character. Aniston is solid as the former beauty queen and her dynamic with Willowdean is also crucial to the authenticity – she doesn’t resent her daughter, she’s not even a bad mother, she’s just consumed with the supposed gravitas and life the title of beauty queen has afforded her. Baillio is infectiously positive and if you like Taylor-Klaus, you’ll like her here – if you aren’t a fan, her performance here will push you further away from her.
Whilst the idea of grown men judging (and lusting in the crowd) over teen girls still strikes me as weird, Dumplin’ doesn’t begin to sexualize the girls or even entertain the cliché of having the competition turn sour and nasty. In fact, the support the girls offer each other is encouraging. There are aspects of the movie that are conventional and predictable, but thankfully nothing that will have you rolling your eyes hard or that destroys the genuine feeling the movie strives for – if you’ve seen the aforementioned Patti Cake$, you’ll recognise some story tropes here, though. The humour throughout is well-worked and when Harold Perrineau and the drag queens turn up, the party starts and they help provide some of the movie's highlights. The writing offers messages which aren’t entirely subtle but massively worthwhile – the need to be yourself, love what you do and bring to the world, and the importance of friendships and family. Dumplin’ is a feel-good movie overall and by the end of it, you’ll be glad of the direction it took.
If Netflix can continue with movies that are as good and solid as Dumplin’, then they’ll be just fine going forward (in terms of movie production). Danielle Macdonald again shows her qualities and the message that runs throughout is strong, necessary and emboldening - love yourself, love your body and love this movie.
December 7th 2018