Written by: Kristin Hahn
Starring: Danielle Macdonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio
Passions come in all shapes and sizes and should not be put down unless it causes harm to others. It makes the observation of beauty pageants one to parse through because the work behind it comes from a place of competition, but its exclusionary and judgemental foundation does create a place where harm can occur. Taking on this whole idea is a young woman in Dumplin’ as she tries to put forward a revolution in heels.
Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald) has grown up mostly connecting with her aunt rather than her mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston) who lives life from the glories of her time as a beauty pageant winner. Rosie puts on the yearly competition and does not spend much time with her daughter, which prompts Willowdean, along with her other friends, to join the competition as a form of protest.
Body image for young women has received plenty of research and conversation about how media portrayals have welded the way girls and women view their bodies. When one figure becomes the ideal, it becomes clear other shapes do not have the same appreciation. Willowdean struggles with this battle through her own self-esteem in the way she interacts with anyone outside of her inner circle of friends. When with her best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush), she lives a happy life blasting Dolly Parton in the car but when she interacts with her attractive coworker Bo (Luke Benward) it feels completely different for her. Having this damaged self-esteem appears to be internalized for Willowdean and part of it comes from having a beauty pageant mother and the standards she has set for what a beautiful person should look like.
This becomes a running theme throughout the film, as she tries to take everything life gives her but her insecurities flame up on occasion. It makes her joining the pageant as a protest so daring. Not only is she joining as someone who does not have the body type typically associated with this competition, but also as a middle finger to her mother to prove the lack of difficulty involved with a pageant. As expected, things go array and some characters take the pageant more seriously than others, which comes at odds with how Willowdeans sees it, and the conflict brews.
As a story overall, the characters feel a bit underdeveloped for what the message they want to achieve. They come at it with the best of intentions, but the way the story moves displays unevenness in the storytelling in moments. It brings the entire production down because it really does not take any real exploration of the issues at hand and by the end, it felt like a surface-level look at the truly glaring issues behind beauty pageants and the real damage they can do to the psyche of a young woman.
The message, however, does anchor the film as Willowdean learns to love herself for her and not for others. This assists her when she interacts with Bo as she seems to be in disbelief that he would ever actually be attracted to her. Their relationship, as a whole, feels a bit cringy, especially the whole lollipop gag but teenage love comes with its own strangeness not to be judged. Willowdean begins to love herself, which rounds out the inspiring and touching message this film wants to put out there for the world. It can work with any person like Rosie who stresses obsessively about how she looks and comes off to others, which evidently she passed down to her daughter. It can also go to someone like Mille (Maddie Baillio) who struggles with her own self-esteem in a different manner.
It would be easy to highlight Jennifer Aniston as Rosie because she’s the big name attached to the project, but she does a really good job. Her commitment to this character puts her in a place of doing a different style of comedy as seen before from her sitcom and romantic comedy outings. With this effort, she portrays a mother following something she loves and having a daughter who attempts to mock it at every turn. Aniston handles the emotions beautifully by also matching the level of vanity necessary for the role.
With the heart of the film lying in the message, it would be difficult to not recommend Dumplin’ to someone because it seeks to uplift and shine a light. Unfortunately, I found it to be too surface level with the very grand issues it wanted to speak on. Several moments will cause plenty to cheer for, especially if you love Dolly Parton and who doesn’t? Overall, a rather mixed experience but one that can hit differently if it connects in a different way than it did for me.