Watching this, it definitely felt like a Young Adult adaptation. It wasn’t until after I finished watching that I checked online and saw that yes, it was in fact based on a YA book. That’s not always a bad thing, and for the purposes of this review it’s little more than a lazy way to frame this introduction, so joke’s on you.
Dumplin’ is the coming of age story of a teenage girl who lost her father at an early age (I think… it wasn’t really mentioned much) and was mostly raised by her Dolly Parton obsessed aunt. Her mother, a former local beauty queen was too busy organizing beauty pageants to look after her, beyond so embarrassingly calling her Dumplin. She is apparently comfortable with being overweight, is in school, has a fast-food job, and has a ludicrously pretty, equally Dolly obsessed best friend. When her Aunt dies, she looks through a box of her old things and finds that in her youth had wanted to entire a local pageant but chickened out. To honour her memory, Dumplin’ decides to enter one of the shows, but unexpectedly her best friend and a couple of outcasts join her in her journey.
Knowing now that the film was directed by Anne Fletcher – a dancer and choreographer – it makes more sense that it included numerous dance scenes, a lot of music, and lacked a unique style. The film is highly comparable to both Ladybird and Little Miss Sunshine, but while those films had a vision framed by the director, Dumplin’ eschews this in favour of clever casting and a Netflix style. Jennifer Aniston is the mum, who really only shows up in the second half of the movie, while Danielle Macdonald and Odeya Rush are Willowdean ‘Dumplin’ and best friend Ellen. If you ever wanted to see Michael from Lost dancing in drag or Bex Taylor-Klaus wearing unnecessary, hilarious, and ridiculous prosthetic teeth, then this is the film for you. The film takes some slightly odd steps – while Willowdean’s falling out with Ellen is the exact conflict you get in every one of these films, it leads to Willowdean doubting herself and going in a mini cycle of destruction which the film completely fails to sell or give the character any reason to do so. One minute everything is wonderful, and the next she’s in crisis mode for zero reason. The performances are all fine – Aniston doesn’t do a great job with the accent while love interest Bo looks about twenty years older than Willowdean.
There are many reasons why I shouldn’t like this – it’s kind of a romantic comedy, it is filled with Country music (a genre I abhor), and it is set in the world of beauty pageants – something so foreign to anyone outside of the USA that every single one of us thinks it must be a joke. It is a joke though, right? You… you don’t genuinely take these things seriously, right? In Northern Ireland, a talent line up is where you stand facing a wall while a man in a balaclava decides which one of you to knee-cap (shoot in the leg) first, while a beauty pageant is watching the sixteen year olds fall out of the pubs at 1.30 am in Belfast before vomiting onto a rat. Yet somehow I did like it. Well, I watched it at least. It hits precisely every note you expect it to, it ends exactly as you know it will, and it is as by the numbers as any film you’ll ever see. I think the only cliche missed is that no-one in the group of pageant girls is ‘the bad one’ who tries to ruin Willowdean’s plans – everyone is so sweet and kind and helpful, making her aforementioned lapse into self-doubt all the more bewildering. Yet the charming cast carries it through and the occasional gentle laugh stops it from being a generic Hallmark movie. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoyed it more than Ladybird, but it’s essentially the same film – even multiple cast members appear in both – and I probably enjoyed it just as much.
Let us know in the comments what you thought of Dumplin!