“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.