It really needed more fabulousness and more drag queens.
The trailer for the Netflix original movie Dumplin’ (2018) promised a wacky Jennifer Aniston, a celebration of Dolly Parton’s discography, and a gang of rebellious beauty pageant contestants. While the movie certainly delivers on all those accounts, after watching I couldn’t help but feel like the movie was still…incomplete. This dumplin’ feels a little half-baked. Wait, do you bake dumplings? I don’t know, I’m not a scientist.
Based on the novel of the same name by Julie Murphy, Dumplin’ tells the story of Willowdean Dickson, the daughter of former pageant queen Rosie Dickson, who enters her town’s annual beauty pageant as a way to protest the overemphasis the competition places on physical appearance. This strains the already rocky relationship between Willowdean and Rosie, who serves as one of the pageant’s coordinators. Though Dumplin’ succeeds in beautifully conveying its central themes of self-confidence, female empowerment, and personal growth, the movie glosses over the fun and fabulousness that comes naturally with its premise.
I think the problem lies with our heroine, Willowdean, played by Danielle Macdonald. Though a fearless and upstanding role-model for body positivity, it’s at times hard to root for Willowdean because she’s unreasonably angry at everyone. Look, a protagonist doesn’t need to be likable to be considered a good or interesting character. In fact, I once saw an interview with Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling where both agreed that from both acting and writing standpoints, it’s far better that the character be relatable, rather than likable. While Willowdean is more than relatable, I still found her character difficult to understand. She seems to be yelling at everyone, “you hate me because I’m fat,” when in reality, her friends, family, and co-workers couldn’t care less about her size. They make it abundantly clear that they love Willowdean for the person she is, rather than what her figure looks like. Yes, there were the two bullies who taunted her, but they’re quickly silenced by a swift kick to the balls. Sorry, spoiler. Ultimately I found Willowdean’s constant anger unnecessary and distracting from what should have been a lighthearted, campy comedy. Her personal drama weighed down the more fun aspects of the movie like the delightful drag queens and Maddie Baillio.
Sigh, Maddie Baillio. What a breathe of fresh air. As Millie Michalchuk, Baillio steals the show from the movie’s talented young lead. Willowdean’s classmate and fellow big girl, Millie decides to join the pageant not out of spite, but purely because she wants to have fun and live her dream of being a pageant girl. Charismatic, optimistic, and positively angelic, Millie is the antithesis of Willowdean. Baillio is able to find the humour and delight in the movie they’re making and jumps in head first. It was like she treated Dumplin’ as she did NBC’s Hairspray Live! (2016), in which she played the lead role of Tracy Turnblad. Just saying, much of the cast would have benefited from treating this movie like Hairspray Live! Baillio gets it. Auditioning for the pageant’s talent portion? Yep, she’s singing show tunes with hula hoops around her arms. Standing up to her mother? Of course she does so with a sassy one-liner. Training with drag queens? No duh she’s wearing the biggest wig and the biggest smile on her face. Baillio was everything, transforming this, at times, melodramatic movie into the shiny, effervescent, joy-fest I was hoping for. I want only good things for Baillio and sincerely hope that 2019 yields more high-profile projects for her. I’m adding her to the list of people I will go to the movies for.
Speaking of knowing what movie she’s in, Jennifer Aniston nails the role of Rosie Dickson. Perfectly playing the Texas pageant mom, Aniston hams it up and chews on every scene she’s in with her believable and effortless Southern accent. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her commit to such an over-the-top and cartoon-y character and it’s a refreshing change of pace for her. It really reminded me of her days on Friends (1994 – 2004). As animated as Aniston is, she never loses the realism behind Rosie and the conflict she endures as she struggles with finding a balance between her two loves: the pageant world, and her only daughter Willowdean. I’m here for some parent / child conflict in movies, but only when it’s justified and the conflict between Rosie and Willowdean just never feels justified. Rosie is considerate, helpful, provides for her daughter, is willing to make sacrifices for her daughter’s benefit and though she couldn’t make it to the Dolly Parton parties Willowdean shared with her Aunt Lucy, she was “working to put a roof over your head because that’s what mothers do.” Sure, she’s a tad superficial, but far from evil and not nearly deserving of Willowdean’s hatred. It’s that unwarranted conflict that had me rolling my eyes at their scenes when I suspect I should have been tearing up. Sorry movie. You didn’t quite make your point clear enough. Listen, I like Rosie, but I may never be able to forgive her for not only forbidding a Beyoncé song be the pageant’s opening number, but uttering the blasphemous line, “I don’t want to hear the name ‘Beyoncé’ anymore.”
I have loved and appreciated Dolly Parton ever since I was 11 years old and she bounced her way onto the Disney Channel as Miley’s eccentric Aunt Dolly on Hannah Montana (2006 – 2011). Since then I’ve only come to adore her music, admire her fearlessness, and attempt to emulate her wonderful zest for life. I’m proud to say that this movie is a celebration of Dolly in every sense of the word, from having her biggest hits serve as the movie’s soundtrack, to squeezing all of her enlightening and folksy sayings into the character’s dialogue. Seriously, all of the characters knew at least two Dolly sayings off the top of their head. Not mad about it. What I am mad about? There was only one scene of fabulous drag queens performing Dolly songs. Sure, they show up again later to get Willowdean and her friends ready for the pageant, but I needed them to be in the movie from start to finish. Y’know, like real characters? Here’s a riddle for you: How do you make a movie more fun? Answer: Drag queens! Always drag queens! Some Like It Hot (1959), Tootsie (1982), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)…drag makes any comedy instantly better and shame on Dumplin’ for leaving its queens out in the cold. There are some pretty great lip syncs to Dolly songs though so that eased my frustration a little bit. Ah, Dolly…The Wayback Wednesday for 9 to 5 (1980) is coming in 2019, I can promise you that.
Though worth watching for its talented and endearing cast, I’m sad to say that Dumplin’ left me disappointed. An uneven mix between goofy comedy, and drama with a message, the movie never seemed to find the balance between the two. As a result, it threw both comedic and dramatic elements at the wall and rolled with whatever stuck. Some things evidently did not stick. Where were the catty, bitchy pageant girls? That’s one of the cornerstones of any teen comedy. Like drag queens, catty, bitchy pageant girls are an absolute must. ALSO, Kathy Najimy is in this movie for two scenes? You fucked up movie. Like the drag queens, she needed to be in this movie from start to finish. Shame. Finally, I leave you with this: Luke Benward, the little nerdy kid from How to Eat Fried Worms (2006) and Minutemen (2008) is in this movie, and I almost didn’t recognize him because he’s a full-on adult now. I am officially old.
Have you seen Dumplin’ ? What did you think?
Let me know in the comments or on social media!