Another day, another Netflix movie – and it would seem that the company that once boasted so many below-average releases has really found its feet and is regularly producing work that challenges the output of the more traditional film studios. Take Dumplin’ for instance. This low-budget charmer combines the American preoccupation with beauty pageants with the songs of Dolly Parton, and has plenty of opportunities to turn into a outright shmaltzfest. But it’s surefooted enough to waltz past the potential pitfalls, emerging on the far side as a genuinely heart-warming feelgood affair.
Willowdean (Danielle MacDonald) is a plump teenager living in a small town in Texas with her mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston). The plumpness, by the way, is an important plot point, not a judgemental description.
Back in her glory days, Rosie was crowned Miss Teen Bluebonnet at a local beauty pageant and has traded on the memory of it ever since, devoting all her spare time to organising similar events, making guest appearances and taking in sewing whenever she needs to make ends meet. For obvious reasons, Willowdean has not pursued a similar path through life and tolerates her Mother’s unthinking nickname for her – Dumplin’ – with as much good grace as she can muster. She works at a local diner, where she’s increasingly drawn to co-worker Bo (Luke Benward), but feels too self-conscious to take the situation further. She’s missing the companionship of her recently departed aunt Lucy, the woman who introduced young Willowdean to the music of Dolly Parton – and who did the lion’s share of babysitting while Rosie was on the road being a ‘beauty queen’.
When Willowdean discovers that Aunt Lucy once held an unfulfilled desire to enter the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant, she decides that she will take part in it herself as a kind of protest against such an outmoded way of judging a woman’s worth. Naturally enough, this soon brings her into conflict with her mother – and with her best friend, Ellen (Odeya Rush). Can Willowdean work up the necessary confidence to see her unlikely mission through? And what exactly is she hoping to achieve?
This could so easily go horribly wrong, but screenwriter Kristin Hahn and director Anne Fletcher keep their eyes firmly fixed on the film’s central message – that our worth is about more than our looks – and let everything else fall into place. There’s an interesting detour where Willowdean and her friends get some tuition from a bunch of wonderfully nurturing drag artistes and, whenever proceedings threaten to lose impetus, there’s another Dolly Parton classic to power things briskly along. Whatever you think of beauty pageants – and I’ll happily admit they don’t figure highly on my list of favourite things – Dumplin’ is an enjoyable story that even the most pernickety will surely enjoy.
Fans of Dolly Parton, by the way, will have a field day.