There’s something to be said for the familiarity of certain story beats, particularly as it pertains to stories of empowerment for those who may need a boost of confidence or self-esteem. The world is a harsh, unforgiving place, full of people who thrive on putting others down for socially unacceptable differences, and there’s a catharsis in fiction that confronts those prejudices, even when it adheres to trite convention and predictable plotting. This is the mold in which we find Dumplin’, a story about being a large girl in a world of skinny starlets and knowing the measure of your worth when even your family can’t see it.
Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald) is the plus-size daughter of the former Miss Teen Bluebonnet, Rosie Dickson (Jennifer Aniston), yet feels a much closer connection to her similarly large aunt growing up, bonding over the outsider persona of one Miss Dolly Parton. However, when Willowdean’s aunt dies, she is left only with her mother for comfort, who is at least subconsciously uncomfortable having a daughter with a body shape that presumably can’t follow in her beauty pageant footsteps. In an act of defiance, Willowdean decides to enter the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant, which is run in part by her mother, and aims to show just what a fat girl can do in a contest focused on normative beauty standards.
If you think you can lay out the basic framework of this story based solely on that first act synopsis, you’re probably not too far off from the actual beats this thing hits. Fellow misfits join in Willowdean’s protest, either out of inspiration or anarchism. Willowdean’s skinny best friend becomes estranged because Willowdean feels her conventional attractiveness disqualifies her from effectively protesting, only to discover that allyship matters. A boy Willowdean works with comes on to her, but she doesn’t have the self-esteem to tell whether he’s genuine. Remembrance of her aunt leads Willowdean to a Dolly Parton-themed drag bar where a gaggle of gay queens function as her dress-up montage coaches. Willowdean discovers a confidence to perform in the pageant unironically and Rosie confronts her fatphobia, realizing an unfound pride in her daughter. This is adapted from a young adult novel, after all, so the story is purposely accessible and perhaps even a bit clichéd, but it ultimately serves its purpose as a vehicle for empathy and positive energy, leaving little room to fault the film for feeling so basic.
What elevates the film from falling victim to its triteness is the performances. Aniston is a legitimately affecting figure as a mother who processes the grief of losing her sister by investing herself even further into her pageant obsession, pushing away the only remaining family she has left through a presumed exclusion. She’s a figure trapped in the past, upholding archaic standards of desirability without recognizing how that affects a daughter who doesn’t meet those standards. Macdonald is the real prize, though, as anyone who saw her previous work in Patti Cake$ can attest to. She is perhaps a bit typecast here, once again playing a fat teenager who fights the world’s prejudices against her through artistic expression, but she really does make that sort of role feel personal and raw, conveying a sense of vulnerability that is only barely masked by a necessarily thick skin.
Dumplin’ isn’t really an awards contender, despite how Netflix is marketing it and the time of year they are releasing it, but it is a very solid entry in the pantheon of feel-good popcorn flicks. It isn’t necessarily important that this one film be revolutionary or make waves with its message, but it matters that its message is out there for young women to see and be reaffirmed by. Sometimes, that’s good enough.