Netflix movie “Dumplin’” is your average feel-good comedy drama flick which actually handles its genre clichés and conventions better than you may think. Sure, this is another familiar story of an adolescent heroine going all the way for more self-esteem and confidence, but the movie has plenty of wit, spirit, and heart at least, and you will gladly root for not only its young heroine but also several other characters around her.
At the beginning, Willowdean “Dumplin’” Dickson (Danielle Macdonald) tells us about how she grew up under the loving care of her dear aunt instead of her mother during her childhood years in a small city of Texas. Because her mother was frequently busy with those local beauty pageants as a famous former beauty queen, her aunt was usually the one to spend time with her, and she gladly shared her considerable enthusiasm toward those Dolly Parton songs with her young niece, who also soon became a big Dolly Parton fan just like her aunt.
However, Willowdean’s aunt passed away several months ago, and Willowdean cannot help but sense more of her aunt’s absence from time to time, but, at least, she gets some consolation from her best friend Ellen “Elle” Dryver (Odeya Rush), who has always been close to her mainly thanks to both of them being passionate Dolly Parton fans. In case of Willowdean’s mother, well, it seems that, besides her real job for supporting herself and her daughter, all she cares about is how to present herself well for her occasional guest appearances at a number of beauty pageants in Texas, and she is also always busy whenever she is about to supervise the annual beauty pageant in the city.
When she is later rummaging up all those old stuffs left by her aunt, Willowdean happens to discover something quite unexpected. It is an old application form for the local beauty pageant in the city, and that belonged to none other than her aunt. After learning that her aunt actually aspired to participate in that beauty pageant but then sadly gave up, Willowdean becomes quite determined about doing what her aunt could not do at that time, and Ellen is certainly willing to accompany Willowdean for support besides also submitting her application form just like her best friend.
Of course, things do not go that well from the beginning because Willowdean does not think much beyond submitting her application form to the pageant committee, which is incidentally led by her mother. Although quite caught off guard by her daughter’s unexpected action, Willowdean’s mother eventually allows Willowdean to join a number of other girls who are already quite prepared to compete with each other, and, as a fairly chubby girl who is understandably not so confident about herself, Willowdean soon finds herself being at a loss about what to do next.
Fortunately, besides Ellen, Willowdean comes to have two other girls willing to help her. While Millie Mitchellchuck (Maddie Baillio), a chubbier schoolmate of hers who has been ridiculed more than Willowdean at their school, is quite eager to try her best regardless of her, uh, relative physical disadvantage, Hannah Perez (Bex Taylor-Klaus), who is a glum but feisty girl passionate about women’s rights, is more interested in fighting against what the beauty pageant mainly represents, but both of them gladly provide some cheer and support to Willowdean, and they later have a pretty fun time together at a certain favorite place of her aunt, which I will let you see for yourself.
Meanwhile, Willowdean also finds herself becoming a bit estranged from Ellen due to their different viewpoints on the beauty pageant, but the screenplay by writer/co-producer Kristin Hahn, which is based on the novel of the same name by Julie Murphy, wisely avoids overplaying their accidental conflict. Ellen and other beauty pageant participants are depicted with some care and understanding, and our heroine comes to discern a bit of how important this seemingly superficial event really is to those pretty girls – and her mother, who turns out to be more serious and caring than she seems on the surface.
As earnestly rolling its story and characters toward the big finale, the movie diligently builds up its emotional momentum, and we come to care more about how the story will end, even though we already have a pretty good idea on that. I do not dare to spoil any of your entertainment, but I can say at least that I enjoyed how the movie smoothly glides from one expected moment to another with some small surprises for us.
Above all, the movie is anchored well by the strong lead performance from Danielle Macdonald, who has been more notable thanks to her acclaimed performance in “Patti Cake$” (2017). Besides balancing her character well between achingly low self-esteem and undeniably irrepressible spirit, Macdonald is believable in her character’s gradual growth along the story, and she is also supported well by Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio, and Bex Taylor-Klaus, who bring each own personality to the story as Willowdean’s three different friends. While Luke Benward is likable as a lad who seems to be interested in getting closer to Willowdean, Harold Perrineau often steals the show as a certain crucial character in the story, and Jennifer Aniston effortlessly goes back and forth between comedy and drama as Willowdean’s mother.
In conclusion, “Dumplin’” is a fairly enjoyable Netflix product thanks to the director Anne Fletcher’s competent direction as well as the commendable efforts from her cast members, and it is a little shame that it was quickly put aside when it was released on Netflix three years ago. I did not expect much when I checked it out in this afternoon, but I was touched and amused enough on the whole, and that is enough for recommendation.