Teenage rebellion has never been so covered in glitter. Bursting at the seams with new life and end-of-summer sweetness, Netflix Original Dumplin’ is an absolute joy to watch. Texas teen Willowdean Dickson (Danielle Macdonald)—called Dumplin’ by only her mother, former pageant queen Rosie Dickson (Jennifer Aniston)—mourns the recent loss of her treasured Aunt Lucy and dreads the beginning of her mother’s pageant season as summer comes to a close. The love of Dolly Parton that Willowdean shares with her best friend since childhood, Ellen (Odeya Rush), is the thread that ties the film together. It’s hard not to love Dolly Parton or feel the warmth of her lyrics, especially when viewed through the lens of such a beautiful, loving friendship.
Taught by her beloved aunt to love Dolly and herself, Willowdean decides to enter the local beauty pageant which happens to be both the oldest in all of Texas and the pageant her mother now directs. Initially a protest against her mother and the typical beauty standards pageants promote, Willowdean soon finds herself in the company of a few other girls inspired by her determination. Although she is quick to inform them, “I am not the Joan of Arc of fat girls.” Although the focus of the film is on Willowdean and her friends, we also see her grapple with the death of her aunt and juggle an uncertain relationship with her mother.
Willowdean finds solace in a group of Dolly Parton drag queens whom she learns had been extremely close with her late aunt. The queens teach Willowdean and her co-pageant protesters/participants Hannah and Millie how to perform and find confidence and truth within themselves, as well as rock a bit of that Dolly Parton glam. The queens act simultaneously as the voice of Aunt Lucy and of Dolly herself (which Willowdean views as nearly one-in-the-same).
Dumplin’ certainly draws from other teen rom-coms and pageant movies (see: Miss Congeniality), but its presentation remains fresh-faced despite its more formulaic script. At times the momentum falters and stumbles but is picked back up by Macdonald and Aniston’s wonderful performances. Just after her breakout role in 2017’s Patti Cake$, Macdonald gives an honest and extraordinarily heartfelt performance as Willowdean. Her relationship with Aniston’s character is the most complex of the film. Both struggle with their grief in different ways, without truly understanding the other’s view of Lucy. The most heartbreaking and tender moments of the film are when they finally listen and begin to understand each other.
Dumplin’ entirely embodies the spirit of Dolly, even if she herself never appears on screen: sincerity, personal truth, and southern glam. That is where the film is at its best: when it is preaching the dogma of Dolly. It is an affectionate journey of self-love, friendship, and motherhood. Dumplin’ left my best friend and I dancing happily around our room to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” with uninhibited warmth filling our chests.
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Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.