Dumplin' Review (Film, 2018)

Dumplin' Review (Film, 2018)

Willowdean Dixon is the daughter of the biggest celebrity in her hometown. Her mother, Rosie, is both a former Miss Teen Bluebonnet and the current director of the longest running pageant in the history of Texas. Willowdean was basically raised by her Aunt Lucy because her mother was too busy fulfilling all of her duties related to the pageant world. When Lucy passes away unexpectedly, Willowdean channels her grief into an opportunity to prove her value to her mother by entering the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant and showing off in her own way.

Willowdean is also plus-sized. So was her Aunty Lucy. So’s her classmate who idolizes her. Despite declaring she is “not the Joan of Arc of fat girls,” Willowdean’s character in Dumplin’ is intended to be a strong, positive role model for young girls who don’t fit the conventional Western beauty standards.

Dumplin’ is a teen dramedy meant to make you cry and laugh in equal measure. It succeeds. Director Anne Fletcher leads a strong ensemble cast to almost underplay the big moments in the film. The predictable plot largely feels realistic, and the few moments that push the suspension of disbelief are made believable by the hard work of the cast.

Leading the charge is Danielle Macdonald (Patti Cake$) as Willowdean Dixon. Macdonald has a wonderful presence onscreen. Your eyes are going to be drawn to her whenever she’s onscreen. Her Willowdean feels real and she makes the character’s more awkward moments—stumbling in heels, questioning a young man’s motivations is in clearly trying to date her—a catalyst to support her more in her triumphs.

Jennifer Aniston nails all the beats as Willowdean’s mother Rosie. This is the kind of role that could easily read as too villainous or cruel. She is playing the director of a teen beauty pageant that is set up for the tallest, thinnest girls to win and daughter is neither of those things. Aniston’s Rosie clearly cares for Willowdean, but also has to fight to defend her traditional beauty pageant from a world increasingly defined by online social media appeal. The only suggestion of any judgment over her daughter’s weight is the nickname, and she immediately steps back from it when Willowdean explains why she doesn’t like it. Aniston’s Rosie is the antagonist of the film, but she is not villainous by any means.

The other key figure in the pageant is Millie, played by Maddie Baillio (Hairspray Live). Like Willowdean, she is a plus-size teenager bullied for her weight. Unlike Willowdean, she actually loves the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant and genuinely wants to enter. Millie is the foil to Willowdean and could easily read as a flat figure based on the screenplay; Baillio does not let that happen. Her Millie starts as a joke and then transforms into one of the most compelling characters in the story.

You might be wondering how a sincere pageant film for teens (albeit a funny one) has wider audience appeal. It’s simple, really. Dumplin’ is built on the backbone of Dolly Parton. Aunt Lucy raised Willowdean to be a Dolly fan from a young age, using Dolly’s music to teach her niece about kindness, love, friendship, and self worth. Willowdean and her friends use Dolly trivia, quotations, and lyrics as part of their everyday lives.

Dolly’s music is the soundtrack of the film (including six new songs written for the film) and her photos might have more screentime than anyone other than Willowdean herself. Further, Willowdean reconnects with the memory of her late aunt by bringing two of her fellow contestants to a Dolly Parton night at a local bar; it’s actually a drag queen spectacular. These drag queens take an interest in Willowdean’s pageant dreams and help her and her friends Millie and Hannah prepare for the pageant. Most of the cast speaks in Dolly and it’s just such an unexpected quirk for a teen film in 2018.

Dumplin’ is an easy to watch film with some surprising pop culture levels built into its structure. The characters have unexpected depth for the teen dramedy genre and the production value really elevates the whole story. It’s also the rare pageant film to criticize the system without vilifying the participants. I can only imagine how much seeing a film led by a character like Willowdean will mean to young people who watch it; I felt inspired and ready to take on life and I haven’t been a teenager in a long time.

Dumplin’ is currently streaming on Netflix.

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