If I’m being completely honest, I did not expect to like Dumplin’ as much as I did. After you see as many films as I have, narrative conventions and cheesy plot points stick out like sore thumbs, often pulling me out of the film and making its flaws that much more apparent. It’s very fitting, then, that the confidence behind every aspect of this film — from its writing, to its direction, to its cast — is part of what helps make it work. This is a film that is full of cheesy moments, that sports some pretty forced dialogue, and offers a narrative that is easy to predict; yet, in spite of all of these apparent flaws, Dumplin’ emerges as not just an enjoyable film, but one that has a vital message at its core.
Dumplin’ follows Willowdean (played by Danielle MacDonald) - a plus-sized teenager who happens to be the daughter of a former beauty queen, Rosie (played by Jennifer Aniston). After the death of her aunt, who helped build Willowdean’s confidence throughout childhood, the young girl enters the local beauty pageant, which Rosie helps run.
I think what helps make Dumplin’ such an important film — and what helps make its flawed elements ultimately work — is that this isn’t the story of a young girl needing a boy to find confidence, nor of one where a girl discovers her self-confidence because of the beauty pageant itself. While there is a male love interest and a beauty pageant in the film, Willowdean’s journey is an internal one. She is searching for inner confidence, not for validation from other people. It’s a more difficult journey, as we see on multiple occasions, but it’s ultimately a more fulfilling one.
It would be easy to mess this film up, too. So many films that have preceded it have stumbled when it comes to this messaging. Dumplin’ makes it a point not to tie Willowdean’s journey specifically to any element other than herself and her fond memories of her aunt. It doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to showing the bullying Willowdean experiences because of her size, nor does it try to shy away from the clearly tense relationship Willowdean has with Rosie. Instead, it embraces these elements and utilizes them to make a point — one we’ve known for quite some time now, but which still needs to be said; one which is adorned on the swimsuits of Willowdean and her best friend Ellen (played by Odeya Rush) when they walk out on stage together — “every body is a swimsuit body.” The point being that beauty is not, and should not, be defined strictly by our waistline.
I’m sometimes criticized of being too hard on films for their flaws, and perhaps there is some truth to that. As much as I adore films, I do use my incessant movie-watching as an opportunity to learn from the faults I see on screen, which helps limit the chance that I too will make them. I’m not cold-hearted, though. I can see the importance of a film’s message, and even be moved by it, even when it is surrounded in conventional Hollywood cliches and narrative conventions I’ve seen a thousand times.
I’m not going to pretend Dumplin’ is a perfect film, because it’s not. It is an important one, though; it’s one that wears its heart on its sleeve, much like Willowdean herself. It’s these elements that help elevate it, and it’s these elements that make it worth watching.
directed by ANNE FLETCHER || written by KRISTIN HAHN
Rated PG-13 || Released December 7, 2018 || 110 MIN