1 Hr., 50 Mins.
Dumplin' December 28, 2018
screenwriter doesn’t have her back, is the kind of effortlessly engaging performer you almost instinctively like.
In Dumplin’, she plays Willowdean, a high-school senior. Everyone calls her “Will." But her mother, a passive-aggressive erstwhile beauty queen named Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), has referred to her as “Dumplin’” all her life. Years ago, it might have come across as an affectionate nickname. Now, though, it seems like a slick way for Rosie to undermine her daughter, whose plus size plainly bothers the superficial her. In spite of her rocky relationship with her mother, however, Will is confident and witty — characteristics imbued by her late, lively Aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley), who essentially raised her, and by her favorite musician, Dolly Parton, whose take-no-shit-drenched discography has instilled in Will a similar attitude. (The country singer wrote six new songs, and re-recorded several classics, for the film’s soundtrack.)
The Texas-set film takes place during pageant season — something that, as often joked-about by Will, dependably renders Rosie pretty one-track-minded and tiring to be around. Each year, Will has tried to ignore the process, which is both trivial in her eyes and a reminder of her tense relationship with her mom. But her conviction shifts when she learns that, in her youth, Lucy applied to be in the town’s pageant, but dropped out at the last minute, apparently because of self-consciousness.
The discovery prompts Will to turn in an application herself. Not only does she want to follow through with a desire her beloved aunt didn’t — she also wants to show her mother, and maybe even herself, that a girl of her size and personality can be an adequate contestant. She does not intend to win; she intends to, instead, remind people that you do not have to fit a certain mold to make an impression. Her decision inspires her best friend, the more-conventionally beautiful El (Odeya Rush), and acquaintances, like the steamed-up, goth-dressing feminist Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and the cheerful, plus-sized Millie (Maddie Baillio), to apply alongside her, in an act of rebellion of sorts. (Though Millie, it is made clear, is genuinely excited about the extravaganza, and will come to take the process of preparing seriously.)
Dumplin’, which is an adaptation of Julie Murphy’s 2015 novel of the same name, has the potential to be accidentally condescending in its satire, or, in possibly taking an “inspirational” route, appear contrived and syrupy. But it is neither. The film, rather, makes for a gutty, tender-hearted comedy-drama. Once pageant practice begins, and once Will discovers that a colleague at the restaurant at which she works, the cornfed, heartthrob-looking Bo (Luke Benward), whom she’s always thought was out of her league, she comes to understand that she is actually much less self-assured than she had previously thought. The film, then, becomes something of a "finding yourself"-style lark, where, by the end, its heroine will gain a new appreciation of herself, and also of a festivity on which she has always looked down. (The film recognizes the exterior problems pageants present, but it never deigns to the people who nonetheless love participating.)
Macdonald, emotionally lissome and persuasive, gives a performance that makes us resolve, really from the moment we first meet Will, that we’re going to stick with her. The supporting players fare well, too. Aniston, keeping up the late-career trend of playing a quasi-antagonist, portrays frost-covering-vulnerability excellently, and Benward, who was one of the few undeniably good things about this year’s patchily funny Melissa McCarthy vehicle Life of the Party, is a genial, nice-to-be-around love interest. (What I like best about his character, though, doesn’t necessarily have to do with Benward specifically: it’s refreshing that the protagonist’s happiness isn’t more or less completely contingent on the solidified affections of a possible suitor.)
There are some blunders. A three-way friendship between Will, Hannah, and Minnie is supposed to develop, but, because Hannah and Minnie are written and performed with caricaturish zing, they feel like bauble more than they do people. Drag-queen characters, who become a mainstay after Will visits a drag bar Lucy used to regularly drop by, are, more often than not, decoratively used — needed only when Will needs advice with a dash of camp and aplomb. Still, Dumplin’ is a winsome pastime. When it aims to be touching, it stays on target. B
his December, Netflix quietly belongs to the 27-year-old Australian actress Danielle Macdonald. The bad news is that, of the two films in which she stars, only one of them is a success. But the good news is that in both movies — Bird Box, which finds her making the most of abysmally written part in an abysmal film, and the endearing Dumplin’, in which she is the lead — she inspires us to think, “Why isn’t she a star?” Macdonald, whose performances are macerated in remarkable sincerity even when a