Not every movie needs to reinvent the wheel. Some tales, like that of a high school misfit trying to find their place, are destined to be told time and time again. Yet, for every half-hearted version that leans into the genre clichés, there’s at least one or two that really connect. It’s like Dolly Parton says, “If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” Netflix’s latest, “Dumplin” is an enjoying rainbow. It’s fun, warms your heart and leaves you with a smile on your face.
Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald) loves Dolly Parton like no other. Her beloved Aunt Lucy taught her to love Dolly’s music and persona. She shares this passion with her best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush), who loves to sing “9 to 5” as they drive to high school. However, being a plus sized girl, Willowdean finds herself the subject of mean jokes from throughout the student body. To make matters worse, her mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), was a former beauty queen and continues to preside over local pageants. Angry that her mother pays more attention to pageants than her, Willowdean enrolls in the pageant as a protest, with Ellen in tow. As soon as she does this, fellow misfits Millie (Maddie Baillio) and Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus) join in the cause. They’re here to change the face of what it means to be a pageant girl.
The movie touts “Music by Dolly Parton” in its credits. Even more than that, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dolly wrote, produced and did the costume design for the film. The opening narration establishes Willowdean as a Dolly devotee. There are countless car singalongs to Dolly’s oeuvre. A pivotal extended sequence finds our girls attending a drag show on Dolly night. The movie’s rhinestone DNA screams Dolly through and through. For some that may appear distracting. However, Dolly Parton’s stage personality and work only accentuate the themes of the movie. Her music teaches us to acknowledge our feelings, find our confidence and embrace what makes us different. “Dumplin” more than adheres to the spirit that has made Dolly Parton an iconic entertainer.
Speaking of entertainers, “Dumplin” is full of some born performers. Danielle Macdonald proves her screen charisma in the rote, yet entertaining, “Patti Cake$” was no fluke. She makes Willowdean a lovable, engaging protagonist that never feels the need to sand off her prickly edges. The rest of her crew of girls infiltrating the beauty pageant also brim with dynamic personalities. Odeya Rush makes a sweet second fiddle to Willowdean and sells their friendship. Bex Taylor-Klaus makes her feminist crusader Hannah more than just a punchline. At the end of the day, Maddie Baillio steals the show as Millie, an excitable Church girl who dreams of being a beauty Queen. Between this and Hairspray Live, Baillio is someone to watch out for.
This brings us to the Jennifer Aniston of it all. “Dumplin” provides Aniston with a role that hopefully kicks off a new act for the talented actress. As Rosie, the ambitiously perfect former beauty Queen, Aniston avoids one-note pitfalls. The movie could have easily made her a fat-phobic, shrill diva that could play to some of Aniston’s broader sitcom-y tendencies. However, it doesn’t. It allows Aniston to craft a woman who struggles to balance work, family and a hobby that she gets pleasure and strength from. Yes, the disconnect between her and Willowdean does involve their differing bodily appearances. However, the movie recognizes that there is more underneath. The differences in the way they grieve Aunt Lucy drives the greatest wedge between mother and daughter.
This also speaks to what director Anne Fletcher and writer Kristin Hahn get right about the story. Though the girls join the beauty pageant as a protest of sorts, the movie doesn’t seek to dismantle pageant culture. Instead, they find the positive aspects they can take from the pageant circuit. The girls form a bond centered around helping each other do the best they can in the pageant. They’re able to embrace what makes them different and use it to their advantage. The movie steers away from vilifying its characters or their dreams. Instead, it treats the perspectives of its characters as valid and focuses on the real root of the mother-daughter conflict at the heart of the story.
There’s been a debate over what makes a Netflix movie and how they fit in the pantheon of movie-going. Movies like “Roma” and “22 July” take these grand cinematic directors and films and try to adjust them to a streaming audience. Much like “To All the Boys I Loved” and “Set it Up” earlier in the year, “Dumplin’” shows what Netflix is good at. It resurrects the mid-budget comedy for women. Fletcher’s past credits include “27 Dresses” and “The Proposal,” two mid-budget rom-coms that seem to be a rarity in theaters today. Hopefully, Netflix continues to find a home for these charming films that people should get a chance to see.