Dumplin’ Review: Netflix & Dolly Parton Deliver Fantastic YA Drama
Netflix's Dumplin' has an emotionally impactful message of self-acceptance, wrapped in a charming coming-of-age story & steeped in Dolly Parton music.
Netflix has found a great deal of success this year by releasing young adult book adaptations and producing teen-focused originals that appeal to viewers of all ages. The streaming service released both The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I've Loved Before in 2018, with the latter becoming a massive hit for Netflix especially. It seems Netflix is now leaning into its newfound reputation for YA adaptations and teen dramas/romantic comedies, as the streaming service has yet another releasing before the end of 2018. The latest YA teen drama/rom-com to be released by Netflix is Dumplin', adapted from Julie Murphy's same-named novel that was initially published in 2015. Netflix's Dumplin' has an emotionally impactful message of self-acceptance, wrapped in a charming coming-of-age story & steeped in Dolly Parton music.
Dumplin' introduces teenager Willowdean Dickson (Danielle Macdonald), the daughter of local beauty queen Rosie Dickson (Jennifer Aniston), who grows increasingly frustrated as her mother focuses more on their small Texas town's Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant. Willowdean is seemingly self assured as a plus-size teenager thanks to her Aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley), who also imparted a love of Dolly Parton's music - and introduced a young Will to her best friend Ellen Dryver (Odeya Rush). However, with the recent passing of Lucy, Willowdean must face her mother's pageant season without her aunt. But when Willowdean discovers an incomplete entry form for the Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant among Lucy's belongings, the teenager decides to do what her aunt never did: enter the pageant.
When Willowdean and Ellen go to sign up, though, other atypical beauty pageant contestants decide to follow her lead, including Millie Michalchuk (Maddie Baillio), a pleasant if seemingly naive fellow plus-size girl, and Hannah Perez (Bex Taylor-Klaus), a standoffish radical feminist. With pressure on the girls to lead a revolution against the Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant and increasing flirtations with her coworker Bo (Luke Benward), Willowdean begins to realize she's not as comfortable in her own skin as she originally believed. With the help of some of Lucy's friends, including Lee (Harold Perrineau), who share her love of Dolly Parton, Willowdean will have to discover who she is and be comfortable in her own skin if she plans on leading a revolution against society's beauty standards - and she'll have to decide whether to quit or embrace the Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant after all.
The story of Dumplin' is brought to life on the screen by director Anne Fletcher and screenwriter Kristin Hahn. Though Hahn doesn't have much previous experience in terms of screenwriting - she worked on the 1997 documentary Anthem and is set to write Disney's Stargirl adaptation - she skillfully adapts Murphy's novel into a compelling script that works for the screen. The movie labors a bit under the task of juggling all the various storylines playing out in different aspects of Will's life. It's no doubt a symptom of condensing down all the storylines of the book into a cohesive movie. But thanks to Hahn's script, Dumplin' always refocuses on the overarching story threads that are most important: the relationships between Will and her mom, and Will and herself. Further, the directing by Fletcher - who has experience in helming female-focused movies with 27 Dresses and Step Up - works to center Willowdean and Rosie in a way that feels true to life. This is a coming-of-age story with elements of romance, and the writing and directing help to portray Willowdean and her experiences in a way that's incredibly relatable.
To be sure, the strength of Dumplin' is very much in its true-to-life depiction of a plus-size teenage girl and how her self-image is both reflected in the way she views the world and her presumptions of how others see her. Willowdean is at the center of a complicated web crafted by society's expectations for how young women should look - expectations constantly upheld by her mother Rosie, who spends much of her own life focused on staying thin - and the empowerment and self-love her Aunt Lucy tried to instill in her from a young age. Willowdean struggles to not be defined by her weight in a world where she feels constantly defined by her weight, and the insecurities that arise from that struggle inform much of her story and the actions she takes. As a result, Dumplin' is one of the best coming-of-age films (if not the best) about a plus-size girl... though, frankly, very few such stories actually exist in Hollywood.
Dumplin' wouldn't be possible without the performances of Macdonald and Aniston, who excellently portray a multifaceted, complicated mother-daughter relationship. It's clear that their family dynamic was shaken up by the death of Lucy (Will's aunt and Rosie's sister), and their house is fraught with tension, which is exacerbated by the pageant season. But, the relationship between Willowdean and Rosie is one of the movie's most compelling - second only to Will's relationship with herself. The pair lead the film well, with Macdonald undoubtedly holding her own next to Aniston. As a result, though, many of the other characters in Dumplin' fall by the wayside, with Benward's Bo, Rush's Ellen and Taylor-Klaus’ Hannah getting largely one-note arcs. There is more depth to Millie, but Baillio curiously plays the character like a slightly toned-down Tracy Turnblad from Hairspray, which is charming, but at times jarring in what's meant to be a modern movie. Altogether though, the supporting cast works well to fill out the world of Willowdean, which serves the main story even if it's not the most complex world.
To give Dumplin' another layer of depth, the movie embraces Willowdean's love of Dolly Parton. Her music is key to Willowdean's character and as much a part of her journey as her friends and family. It helps, no doubt, that Parton provided the music for Dumplin', re-recording some of her classic songs or writing new tracks for the film's soundtrack. (Though, some of the new versions may not satisfy die hard fans of the music icon.) This music helps to ground Dumplin' in the film's Texas setting, and adds even more character to the movie. Though Dumplin' may not be a musical or even a movie technically about music, it uses Parton's songs to develop Willowdean's character and further her story in an incredibly fun way.
Ultimately, Dumplin' offers a charming and emotionally moving coming-of-age story, elevated by the performances of its two leads and given a great deal of personality thanks to the writing and directing behind the scenes. Dumplin' is a great, entertaining watch for anyone already interested in the story, and it's a fantastic adaption of Murphy's novel, staying true to the source material but translating it (mostly) effectively to film. Further, those who've watched Netflix's other YA-type content will no doubt find Dumplin' to be compelling. While it may not quite reach the heights of To All the Boys I've Loved Before, Dumplin' is far and above a better teen-focused movie - with a much better message - than The Kissing Booth or Sierra Burgess is a Loser. To be sure, Dumplin' is a fun and grounded coming-of-age story with as much flare for the dramatic as Dolly Parton herself.
Dumplin’ is now available to stream on Netflix. It is 110 minutes and is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
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