An adaptation of a young adult novel by Julie Murphy, director Anne Fletcher’s Dumplin’ is a film of big emotions and big messages: embrace who you are, speak your mind, accept differences in others. The story concerns an overweight teenage girl, Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald), who lives in the shadow of her mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), the one-time teen beauty queen of a small Texas town. According to Willowdean, her recently deceased aunt, Lucy (Hilliary Begley), who was also overweight, was the one who really raised her, as Rosie was too busy as a minor local celebrity and, implicitly, too ashamed of Willowdean’s appearance to pay her much attention. Lucy taught Willowdean how to stay strong in a hostile world, and to love Dolly Parton, who figures in the film as a kind of patron saint of feminine self-assurance.
In an act of rebellion, Willowdean signs up for the teen beauty pageant that her mother helps organize. At first an impulsive move directed at retaliating against Rosie, Willowdean’s participation in the pageant attracts other nonconventional contestants to sign up: Millie (Maddie Baillio), a bubbly evangelical girl who’s also overweight, and the goth Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Willowdean also convinces her conventionally beautiful friend Ellen (Odaya Rush) to sign up, which precipitates a quarrel between the two longtime besties. Bonding over their mutual ostracism from the mainstream, Hannah, Millie, and Willowdean decide to actually put an effort into the show, hoping to shake up the system from the inside.
The actions of these four girls are often referred to in the terms of social revolution. “You don’t have the body for the revolution,” Willowdean tells Ellen at the height of their conflict, but such terms become essentially meaningless in the film’s world. Indeed, Hannah, an amalgam of punk, metal, and goth stereotypes, seems to be included in Dumplin’ so that overt discussion of patriarchy can be pushed aside with a laugh. There’s of course a final triumphant moment on stage, when the girls shake up the format of the pageant and appear to deconstruct its standards, but it is odd that both audiences and judges receive their tweaks to the “Health and Fitness” competition (a swimsuit competition for teenage girls) with enthusiasm. In Dumplin’, feminist revolution becomes not something that would disturb the status quo, but would merely find a new way to entertain its guardians.
Less about revolution, though, Dumplin’ is about a mother and daughter overcoming the distance that unfair standards of feminine beauty have put between them, both coming to a renewed understanding of each other’s world. To flesh out Willowdean’s character development, the film layers on top of this the disagreement with Ellen and a romantic subplot concerning the new, cute boy at school (Luke Benward) who seems to have a crush on Willowdean. But as it proceeds through a series of teary reconciliations in the last half-hour of its 110-minute run time, the film’s didactic drama begins to grate, its treacly emotions feeling increasingly unearned. The validation Willowdean seeks has actually been delivered in straightforward dialogue or Dolly Parton epigrams at the end of most scenes, so that the film’s attempt at a feel-good triumph is diluted by the constant affirmations that preceded it.