Through 2018, Netflix has been making a major play at becoming a big player in the world of film distribution. One genre the company has seen great success in when it comes to its original films is that of YA adaptations and YA-friendly output. Dumplin,' based on the Julie Murphy novel of the same name, is the latest entry in that canon. While it's not as uneven as some of Netflix's other offerings this year, the film has some minor issues that hold it back from being truly great.
Set in the world of Texas beauty pageants, Dumplin' is about Willowdean (Danielle MacDonald), daughter to legendary pageant queen Rosie (Jennifer Aniston). Throughout her life, Willowdean has railed against the system that made her mother a star. Now, her rebellion has taken her straight into the heart of that pageantry, as she signs up for the local Miss Teen Bluebonnet Pageant, at first as a sort of protest against what qualifies as beautiful and talented in the pageant universe. What begins as sabotage turns into something much more personal and transformative for young Willowdean.
Director Anne Fletcher has helped craft a heartfelt ode to a teenager finding herself in Dumplin's film adaptation, and she does it with a magnetic lead in Danielle MacDonald. No stranger to the role of a rebellious teenager, MacDonald seamlessly translates the skills she used to play a Jersey rap star in Patti Cake$ into a gentler, but still fierce-edged Texas teen.
Even better, MacDonald holds her own against Jennifer Aniston in the role of her pageant queen mother. While Aniston isn't a constant presence in Dumplin,' she is most certainly a vital presence. When she and her onscreen daughter are able, they bristle with an energy that is authentic in situations that are tense enough for the audience to feel them, but grounded enough to not jump into histrionics.
Unfortunately, one of the best facets of Dumplin' is also one of its weaknesses. In particular, the relationship between Willowdean and Rosie isn't built well enough for the pageant angle to truly pay off. Were this solely a story about a daughter who is struggling to find herself, Dumplin' might have made for a stronger narrative. However, with the component of Rosie's storied history in pageants already being built-in as it was in the film's screenplay, it would have been nice to see it integrated past the point of what seems like a minor detail.
The same can be said for the story of Willowdean's aunt Lucy, a figure influential to her life's course. Her presence is meant to be felt constantly throughout the film, but just like the story of her mother, it's not shown enough to truly land the punches.
Despite the slight narrative hitches that Dumplin' possesses, the way the story is told makes the experience an enjoyable and uplifting one. The chemistry of the film's cast, as well as Anne Fletcher's keen directorial eye, make a big difference by delivering the material in such a way that it's hard not to smile. And it all comes from the one place you'd think would deliver the most drama: the pageant story.
It's here that Dumplin' does its best work, as it manages to steer clear of the usual aggressive drama one would expect out of a pageant story. It's because of this that the film manages to play as enjoyable as it does, especially when focusing on Willowdean's preparation for the pageant. As she transforms alongside some fellow competitors who are outsiders much like herself, the film turns towards a more uplifting angle, making the sum total of the film's emotional journey one of the most positive teen films to hit the streets this year.
Dumplin' is a bit uneven, with its story underdeveloped as a narrative experience. However, as a journey of personal growth, it shines bright in the spotlight. If there's anything this film should teach its audience, it's that while you may not always have your act together, there's nothing a little Dolly Pardon and some red shoes can't turn into a fun night.