Dec 17, 2018
Welcome back to another Netflix Original film, one of two streaming offerings with limited theater runs. It’s an intriguing new strategy by Netflix, as they continue to morph their distribution methods now that streaming has come to stay. The strategy also allows Netflix to promote potential Oscar films through widespread availability prior to award shows, a conversation which I’ll continue tomorrow for “Roma”, which has been receiving nearly all the Oscar buzz. If anyone out there has actually seen a Netflix Original film in the theaters, outside of a film festival, let me know where and when. You can reach the podcast at onemoviepunch.com or reach out over social media.
Today’s movie is “Dumplin’” (2018), the Netflix Original comedy directed by Anne Fletcher and written for the screen by Kristin Hahn, based on the novel by Julie Murphy. The film follows Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald), the plus-size daughter of her beauty pageant mother Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), who refers to her as Dumplin’. When Willowdean enters the local beauty pageant contest as a protest, she inspires other women to do the same, and sets out for advice from the local drag show. The film has received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song.
Independent films have the luxury of being able to blur the more formulaic lines between drama and comedy, often able to tell fuller and richer stories in the process. I often feel that’s because the filmmaker has the luxury of creating a vision instead of playing for the widest audience, and most importantly, able to take chances, like a shot across the bow of beauty pageants. Beauty pageants, from their less than flattering origins, to their often complicated and scandal-ridden present, certainly have a lot of catching up to do with the rest of mainstream feminism, which makes “Dumplin’” as a story a great premise, and ultimately does for teen beauty pageants what “Little Miss Sunshine” seemed to do for child pageants. It also helps to have the film set to the music of Dolly Parton, herself a character study in self-acceptance and expression, and one of those lucky folks mentioned earlier who could have a clear vision *and* play to the largest audience.
In fact, Dolly Parton is the musical backbone to this entire film, and a strong role model for many people, women and men alike. Her reach is so far as to put conservative country fans, proud drag queens, and music critics all in the same room. She was also, in her own way, a rebellion against more conservative beauty standards. Her career provides a great canvas on which to tell Willowdean’s story, rebelling against the more consumerist beauty standards sold via the media, and echoed through every asshole out there fat-shaming people. From the tiniest physical cues to the cruel jokes by stand-up comedians, to the vilest name-calling that is thankfully absent from today’s PG-13 rated movie. Danielle Macdonald does well as Willowdean, navigating her drop in confidence when her sought-after co-worker expresses interest in her, and shining as she gives her all and grows to accept herself even more than before.
So, incredible meaning and message, and excellent costumes, sets, and music. Everything in place to create something amazing, and yet, the film never seems to rise above a standard independent drama. Great scenes are stitched together with only okay montages, and the constant references to Dolly Parton, much like the entertainer herself, tend to steal the show. We always sort of know where we’re headed, and the stakes are never really too high. I most definitely built an attachment to the characters, and cried quite a lot watching the film, but I also identified a great deal with Willowdean’s own struggle for self-acceptance, as an overweight child during most of my school years. However, all of that comes from excellent source material and personal connection, not really this particular adaptation. It is still a great film, but I felt there could have been much more.
“Dumplin’” (2018) is a heartwarming film about self-acceptance, told through a plus-size teenager entering a beauty pageant, and backed with the music of Dolly Parton. It does justice to the source material, bringing the story to life with excellent performances, but there’s nothing revolutionary about the mostly standard storytelling technique. Fans of self-acceptance dramas, or teen romances, should definitely check out this film, along with any fans of Dolly Parton.
Rotten Tomatoes: 74%
One Movie Punch: 8.4/10
“Dumplin’” (2018) is rated PG-13 and is currently streaming on Netflix and playing in select theaters.