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The new Netflix film Dumplin’ – the mawkish, rhinestoned lovechild of Glee, the 1975 beauty pageant satire Smile, and practically any episode of the reality show Chrisley Knows Best – is a big-hearted dramedy about an overweight teenager who finds herself by way of Dolly Parton. As an ode to the Backwoods Barbie, who executive-produced and penned six original songs for the film, Dumplin’ is often good fun, as in a scene where a vivacious group of Texan drag queens perform some of Ms Parton’s greatest hits.
But as a coming-of-age tale, a comedy of southern pageantry, or a story of mother-daughter reconciliation, it is boringly conventional, giving the sensation of having seen it all before, only this time with more glitter and higher hair.
Directed by Anne Fletcher, also behind great romcoms like The Proposal and 27 Dresses, and based on the popular YA novel by Julie Murphy, Dumplin’ takes place in Clover City, Texas, where a high-schooler named Willowdean Dickson (a sassy and sympathetic Danielle Macdonald) spends her days fending off school bullies, waitressing at a breakfast joint, and lounging in the pool with her best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush). The film takes its name from the sweet but unintentionally degrading sobriquet assigned to Willowdean by her mother, Lucy, played by Jennifer Aniston, whose high-octane pageant-mom impression is a bit like Toddlers & Tiaras by way of Holly Hunter.
Some backstory: Willowdean was raised by her now-deceased aunt Rosie (appearing in occasional voiceover), who introduced her to Parton’s music as her sister, Willowdean’s mother, competed in and hosted beauty pageants across the state. And so, as we open, the mother-daughter rift is live and fairly humdrum: at a pageant called Miss Teen Bluebonnet, the campy and capaciously hairstyled Lucy bestows honors on thinner, more conventionally attractive young women as Dumplin’ looks on from backstage, mourning her aunt and resentful toward her vainglorious mother.
This, of course, motivates her to enter the pageant, staging a mini-revolution on behalf of outcasts like herself, the personae non grata of the narrow-minded pageant circuit. It’s not quite the “revolt of the oppressive hetero-patriarchy unconsciously internalized by the female psyche”, as one character puts it, but the premise is nevertheless full of potential.
There is a better version of Fletcher’s film that is less one-note, but Dumplin’ adheres to the conventions of these inspirational stories: a carpool scene, where classmates overhear Lucy calling Willowdean by her nickname and ridicule her for it; a handsome and charming boy who crushes on an incredulous Dumplin’; a mother at first resistant to her daughter’s crusade, and then impressed by it; a best friend who decides, to Dumplin’s chagrin, that she likes the beauty pageant scene more than she had anticipated. This is one of those issue-oriented movies where everything assumes talismanic importance, from a magic eight-ball to a bedazzled butterfly brooch to an actual framed photo of Dolly herself.
Not helping the film’s cause is Murphy and screenwriter Kristin Hahn’s hokey script, which is curiously starved of laughs, even with Macdonald’s exuberance, Aniston’s comedic gifts, and a brief appearance by the always-welcome Kathy Najimy (as the mother of Maddie Baillio’s Millie, who joins Willowdean’s protest). That the best lines are Parton’s own – “It’s hard being a diamond in a rhinestone world”; “It’s a good thing I was born a girl, otherwise I’d be a drag queen” – tells you all you need to know about the source of the film’s sporadic thrills.
Balancing out moments of contrived uplift are the performances of Aniston and Macdonald, an energetic actor fresh off her first star-vehicle, the 2017 hip-hop striver’s tale Patti Cake$. Aniston channels the self-seriousness of the pageant circuit effectively: “It is my responsibility to uphold the guidelines, however unpopular it makes me,” she sternly tells a contestant whose selection of a Beyoncé number runs afoul of the antediluvian pageant world. A dramatic monologue at the film’s end also reveals layers to Lucy’s character that might have been flattened in the hands of a less capable actor.
Dumplin’, though, is more polemic than pageant, and too often the film loudly announces its noble intentions with slogans instead of dialogue: “A protest in heels”, “Every body is a swimsuit body” and, as if inching toward self-awareness, “Hey hey, ho ho, patriarchy has got to go.” That’s a message to get behind, as is Aniston’s superfluous southern accent and the ascent of Macdonald. The movie, however, is not.
Source: The Guardian
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