You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Dumplin”

Ace turns by Danielle Macdonald and Jennifer Aniston — plus a sprinkling of Dolly Parton pixie dust — make Netflix's teen comedy a sweetly progressive surprise.

Anne Fletcher
Danielle Macdonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio, Luke Benward, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Georgie Flores, Dove Cameron, Harold Perrineau.
Release Date:
Dec 7, 2018

Rated PG-13  1 hour 50 minutes

“I’m not the Dalai Lama, but I’ll try to offer up a few words of advice,” Dolly Parton chirped in her 2008 single “Better Get to Livin’,” before doling out exactly the brand of wholesome, no-nonsense wisdom you’d expect from the indefatigable country queen: If you keep your head up, keep moving forward and say the odd little prayer, life will more or less work out fine.

It’s no surprise that “Better Get to Livin'” features prominently in “Dumplin’,” a film as big on homespun heart as it is short on the letter ‘G,’ and one that certainly places Dolly and Dalai on more or less the same spiritual plane. The singer may not star in Anne Fletcher’s lovable self-help comedy — about a plus-size, Parton-worshipping teen who shakes up her small Texan community by entering a local beauty pageant — but from her integral narrative presence to her contribution of numerous originals to an already Dollycious soundtrack, she is very much its benevolent spirit animal. More films in its vein should be so lucky.

Released directly to Netflix, “Dumplin'” is the latest example of the streaming monolith’s recently honed knack for developing canny youth-targeted comedies that would once have been standard date-night fodder at the multiplex. Rather like “Set It Up” or “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” it stands instead to cultivate a sizeable following as optimum girls’-night-in entertainment, with the twin draws of Parton and Jennifer Aniston — adding a welcome bit of pepper to proceedings as the protagonist’s conflicted mom — to broaden its generational reach. Indeed, from its unpatronizing body-positive messaging to its restrained, tactful faith-based concessions (a given with Parton on board), “Dumplin'” has been so carefully calculated, it’s a wonder it plays as warmly and sincerely as it does.

Much credit for that coup is owed to Australian actress Danielle Macdonald, the breakout star of last year’s Sundance hit “Patti Cake$,” here excelling in a far more homey affair: The unaffected, worn-in good humor she brings to producer-writer Kristin Hahn’s chipper script (adapted from Julie Murphy’s popular YA novel) fends off much of its potential for cutesiness. Nicknamed Dumplin’ in absentmindedly cruel fashion by her single mother Rosie, 17-year-old high-schooler and diner waitress Willowdean is comfortable enough in her skin; it’s her complacent, conservative small-town surroundings that she’d like to change. No one symbolizes that trap more egregiously to her than Rosie, a former winner of the local Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant whose life now revolves around directing the same event. With Willowdean having been more actively and affectionately raised by her late, Parton-obsessed aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley), mother and daughter now live in a state of cool, brittle discord, each quietly embarrassed by the other.

So it’s initially a vengeful streak that motivates Willowdean to try out for Miss Teen Bluebonnet herself, declaring her presence amid her skinnier, more popular competitors as a kind of “protest in heels.” Yet what was intended as a snide act of rebellion turns revolutionary in a different way, when shy, curvy classmate Millie (Maddie Baillio, delightful) is motivated by her example to enter the pageant in earnest, with anti-patriarchy lesbian goth Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus) joining their misfit contingent. Moreover, when Willowdean’s loyal best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush) proves unexpectedly adept and enthusiastic in her pageant training, our heroine is forced to reconsider what institutions she’s actually fighting. What, in other words, would Dolly do?

Occasionally, “Dumplin'” can be as inelegant as its title, with Hahn’s adaptation trading in broad characterizations and shorthand LGBT stereotyping. Hannah’s brand of feminism, in particular, could be unpacked a little more deftly, while the band of merry drag queens (led by the ever-vital Harold Perrineau) that comes to Willowdean’s rescue at her lowest ebb doesn’t bear much queer scrutiny: They collectively operate as angelic Dolly Parton proxies in even gaudier garb, offering a sparky but formulaic sideshow to trickier dramatic matters. The gradual maturing of Willowdean and Rosie’s relationship — played by Macdonald and Aniston with bittersweet delicacy — perhaps gets shorter shrift than it should.

Yet under the tender, generous directorial touch of Fletcher (rallying from the crass disappointment of 2015’s “Hot Pursuit”), the film uses such shortcuts to reach surprisingly nuanced conclusions about tolerance, female friendship and the adolescent tension between self-assertion and empathy. Willowdean has a point to prove, certainly, but also a few preconceptions to shed in a narrative that doesn’t shame any party, from drag queens to pageant princesses, en route to its expected feelgood conclusion.

Finally, while a romantic subplot involving our heroine’s mutual flirtation with her dreamy diner colleague Bo (appealing Disney Channel alum Luke Benward) unfolds in similarly progressive fashion, it is, refreshingly, a secondary concern throughout: Female camaraderie is the more urgent priority here. Perhaps it takes an overseeing godmother figure as universally adored as Dolly Parton to knit this cheerful jumble of characters, causes and potentially mawkish life lessons together, as Willowdean learns that one of her idol’s most quotable lyrics — “This dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool” — is, as an anthem for the underestimated, more universal than she ever knew.

Film Review: 'Dumplin''

Reviewed online, London, Dec. 8, 2018. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production: A Netflix presentation of a Cota Films production in association with 50 Degrees Entertainment. Producers: Michael Costigan, Mohamed Alrafi, Kristin Hahn, Trish Hofmann. Executive producer: Jennifer Aniston, Danny Nozell, Christopher Tricarico.

Crew: Director: Anne Fletcher. Screenplay: Kristin Hahn, adapted from the novel by Julie Murphy. Camera (color): Elliot Davis. Editor: Emma E. Hickox. Music: Jake Monaco. Original songs: Dolly Parton, Linda Perry.

With: Danielle Macdonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio, Luke Benward, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Georgie Flores, Dove Cameron, Harold Perrineau.

More Film

  • DF-10956_R – Gwilym Lee (Brian May) and

    'Bohemian Rhapsody' Producer Confirms Bryan Singer's Reason for Leaving, Says 'No One' Was Attached to Play Mercury

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” producer Graham King provided insight into some of the events surrounding the Golden Globe-winning film Saturday at the Producers Guild Awards Nominees Breakfast, including director Bryan Singer’s departure from the film partway through production. “It’s an unfortunate situation, with like 16, 17 days to go and Bryan Singer just had some issues, his [...]

  • Author Tony Mendez arrives at the

    Tony Mendez, Former CIA Officer Depicted in 'Argo,' Dies at 78

    Tony Mendez, the former CIA technical operations officer who orchestrated the 1980 rescue of six American diplomats from Iran and who was portrayed by Ben Affleck in the Academy Award winning film “Argo,” has died. He was 78. Mendez’s book agent, Christy Fletcher, announced the news on Twitter Saturday morning. “Early this morning, Antonio (Tony) [...]

  • Glass Movie

    'Glass' to Rank in Top 3 MLK Debuts With $48 Million

    M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” is on its way to a solid debut with an estimated $48 million for the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. A sequel to 2000’s “Unbreakable” and 2017’s “Split,” the Universal superhero thriller should bring in around $41 million from 3,841 domestic locations over the Friday through Sunday period. The estimates are [...]

  • China's 'Three Adventures of Brooke' to

    China's 'Three Adventures of Brooke' to Hit French Theaters (EXCLUSIVE)

    Midnight Blur Films has signed a deal with French distributor Les Acacias to release Chinese arthouse drama “Three Adventures of Brooke” in France this year, the Chinese production company told Variety on Saturday. A release date has yet to be set for the film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and stars Chinese newcomer Xu Fangyi [...]

  • Noe Debre On His Directorial Debut,

    Top French Screenwriter Noe Debre Makes Directorial Debut, ‘The Seventh Continent’

    This last half-decade, few French screenwriters have run up such an illustrious list of co-write credits as Noé Debré. Thomas Bedigain’s writing partner on Jacques Audiard’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Deephan,” Debra co-penned Bedigain’s own debut, “The Cowboys,” “Racer and the Jailbird,” by Michael Roskam, and “Le Brio,” directed by Yvan Attal. He has now [...]

  • Julien Trauman Talks Survival-Thriller Short ‘At

    Julien Trauman on Survival-Thriller Short ‘At Dawn’

    France’s Julien Trauman has never been afraid to play with genre, and in his latest short, the MyFrenchFilmFestival participant “At Dawn,” he employs aspects of psychological thriller, survival, coming-of-age and fantasy filmmaking. “At Dawn” kicks off the night before when a group of teens, one about to leave town, are imbibing heavily around a beach-side [...]

  • ‘Flowers’ Director Baptiste Petit-Gats Interview

    Baptiste Petit-Gats: ‘Editing Taught Me How to Write for Film’

    France’s Baptiste Petit-Gats is an hyphenate that keeps himself plenty busy editing, photographing, writing and directing. The bulk of his editing gigs up until now have been in documentary film work, evident in the way he shot and edited his own short film, participating in the MyFrenchFilmFestival, “Flowers.” In the film, Petit-Gats tells the heartbreaking [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content