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.

Popular on Variety

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

  • The Plague Season 2 Spanish TV

    Telefonica, Atresmedia to Create Content Factory Behemoth

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — In a game-changing move for Spanish-language production Telefonica, Europe’s third biggest telco, and Atresmedia, the original co-creators of “La Casa de Papel,” are uniting to create a new joint contents production giant. Aimed at gaining more scale and uniting the two companies’ talent relations – writers, directors and producers – the 50/50 [...]

  • Media Company Formed Through Merger Given

    KKR-Backed German Media Conglomerate Takes the Name Leonine

    The KKR-backed German media company formed through the merger of Tele München Group, Universum Film, i&u TV, and Wiedemann & Berg Film has been given the name Leonine, it was revealed Friday. Fred Kogel, CEO of Leonine, said: “When choosing the new brand as our company name, the following aspects were decisive for us: it [...]

  • Scattered Night

    San Sebastian New Directors Jihyoung Lee and Kim Sol Talk ‘Scattered Night’

    After taking the Korean Competition Grand Prize and the best acting award (Moon Seung-a) at the Jeonju Intl. Film Festival, “Scattered Night” now heads to San Sebastian’s New Directors selection. An intimate portrayal of a family whose members are deeply isolated from one another, the film follows two parents overwhelmed by their responsibilities, their own [...]

  • Johnnie To Quits Taiwan Golden Horse

    Johnnie To Quits Golden Horse Awards as China Builds Pressure

    Leading Hong Kong film maker Johnnie To has dropped out of the Golden Horse Awards, where he was set to be president of the jury deciding the prize winners. The awards, which take place and are organized from Taiwan, have long been considered the most prestigious prized in Chinese-language cinema. However they are currently under [...]

  • Zeroville

    Film Review: 'Zeroville'

    I’m tired of hearing how some novels are “impossible to adapt.” Balderdash! Just because some books don’t lend themselves to being translated from page to screen doesn’t mean that the attempt ought not to be made. Just ask James Franco, who’s shown a speed freak’s determination to tackle some of the unlikeliest literary adaptations of [...]

  • Red Penguins review

    Toronto Film Review: 'Red Penguins'

    “Red Penguins” is a cautionary tale with particular resonance in the context of our current bizarre intertwining with Russia, the country that interfered in the last U.S. presidential election and is led by the POTUS’ apparent BFF. This wild tale of attempted transnational commerce just after the demise of the USSR in the 1990s chronicles [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content