Australian actress Danielle Macdonald first caught the attention of Hollywood with a star-making turn in Geremy Jasper’s 2017 Sundance hit “Patti Cake$,” which cast her as an unlikely heroine saddled with a baked good-based nickname yearning to break free from expectation and convention by using her unexpected skills in rap to shine. She’s trying something similar in Anne Fletcher’s “Dumplin,'” in which she is set as an unlikely heroine saddled with a baked good-based nickname yearning to break free from expectation and convention by using her unexpected skills in beauty pageants to shine. And yet Fletcher’s Netflix film offers a new glimpse at Macdonald’s evolving talent, allowing her to blend YA convention with genuine heart in the mother-daughter dramedy.
Based on Julie Murphy’s YA novel of the same name and adapted by screenwriter Kristin Hahn (who recently completed her script for “Stargirl,” another beloved teenage novel), “Dumplin'” follows some familiar beats, focusing on the fraught relationship between Macdonald’s high schooler Willowdean (oh, yes, she knows it’s a mouthful) and her mother Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), a former pageant queen who has never gotten over her early triumphs. Willowdean (or Dumplin’, as her mother calls her, much to the slightly overweight teen’s dismay) and Rosie don’t see eye to eye on much, but her early years were happily spent being raised by someone else: her vivacious Aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley), who loved every bit of Willowdean and encouraged her to always be herself.
It’s clear from the moment that the film opens that something terrible has happened to Aunt Lucy, as Willowdean lovingly refers to her in the past tense as she lays out her childhood, her relationship with her mom, and her Lucy-less present. Lucy’s greatest gift to Willowdean was their shared love of Dolly Parton (who wrote an original new song for the film), and even with Lucy now gone, Willowdean is devoted to the worship of Lucy’s beloved Dolly-isms, including her favorite, “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” Lucy also introduced young Willowdean to her best friend Ellen (played later in the film by Odeya Rush), and while “Dumplin'” is marred by the holes in Willowdean’s relationships with her mom (emotionally speaking) and Lucy (literally speaking), it also offers a wholesome and believable bond between the pair that has endured over many years. Female friendship could always use more on-screen depictions like these, one that veers away from boring jealousies and cheap fights over boys.
But, as is the case with any coming-of-age tale worth its salt, some of those things are going to have to change, and fast. Willowdean is sardonic and sassy, and despite the lingering loss of Lucy and the obvious sense that she and her prissy mother will never be close, Macdonald never plays her as a run-of-the-mill outcast and the film doesn’t resort to cheap gags to diminish her. Willowdean needs to make some changes, but she doesn’t need to be saved, a worthy and refreshing lesson to see in a film aimed so squarely at teen girls. The revelation that her vivacious, plus-sized aunt wanted to compete in Rosie’s pageants forces Willowdean to do something kind of wild, the sort of plot twist that’s both necessary and totally obvious: she decides to compete in this year’s pageant.
Willowdean doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel — neither, it seems, does the conventionally plotted “Dumplin'” — and she’s not hoping to get made over into a teen beauty queen, she just wants to smash wide open an antiquated system that punished her aunt and twisted her mom. Inevitably, she inspires a whole mess of misfits to follow suit, upending Rosie’s pageant and Willowdean’s entire life. It’s a small-stakes revolution, but the motley crew that bolsters Willowdean are amusing as hell, the Dolly jams are banging, and Macdonald is winning.
Fletcher’s film is remarkably generous with its characters, and while Willowdean is at its center, “Dumplin'” finds the space to dig into the messier aspects of its other characters, too. Rosie, presented early on as a looks-obsessed throwback, is offered a compelling arc that helps change her daughter’s heart, too. Other pageant girls who could easily be made into simple villains are also painted as unique people, with their own heartaches to handle (a small scene featuring Willowdean’s greatest nemesis nimbly humanizes her and reveals her own problems without getting hammy, even as Willowdean is shocked to learn that pretty people have problems too). Willowdean’s wacky pack of new friends — including the cheery Millie (Maddie Baillio) and the pissed-off Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus) — all grow, as does her handsome co-worker Bo (Luke Benward). The pageant world might be cutthroat, but these people are nice.
That’s not often the case in high school-set films, especially ones that center on plus-sized stars, and the kindness at the heart of the story is a welcome respite in the genre. The trick is getting Willowdean to accept it after years of telling herself she’s not enough, and while “Dumplin'” throws some outsized twists into the narrative — including Willowdean’s discovery of Aunt Lucy’s favorite haunt, a country bar with a Dolly Parton drag night — there’s little worry that things aren’t going to work out in the end.
Maybe that’s okay. The film might not push back on the outdated nature of the beauty pageant industry or take Rosie to task for foisting her kid on a relative because she was too selfish to do anything else, but it presents a world that’s a little kinder, a little gentler, and a little more willing to see the good in people than the current standards these days. Lessons about loving oneself, accepting one’s faults, and being the best version of yourself are cheesy, but not without purpose. Call it cinematic comfort food, but “Dumplin'” knows how to satisfy.
Netflix will release “Dumplin'” in select theaters and via its streaming platform on Friday, December 7.