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‘Dumplin’ Review: Where Body Positivity and Beauty Pageants Coexist

This flawed but fun take on body politics and coming-of-age is worth a watch.
By  · Published on October 23rd, 2019

This week, we gave our group of interns a challenge: pick a movie from the past decade that didn’t seem like it was for you, so you didn’t see it. Watch that movie and review it. You can find all of their reviews on the Projects page.

To the tune of Dolly Parton’s discography, Dumplin’ makes a clear political statement with irresistible joy. Directed by Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, The Proposal) and based on the young adult novel of the same name by Julie Murphy, the film delights in classic coming-of-age teen movie tropes while tenuously balancing a message of body positivity and the importance of community.

The plot of Dumplin’ follows Willowdean (Danielle MacDonald) — she goes by the nickname “Will” to friends and “Dumplin’” to her mother — as she grieves the loss of her Aunt Lucy and deals with the start of pageant season in her small Texas town. It’s a big deal for her mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), a former pageant queen and current director of the local Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant.

After a fight with her mom and the discovery that her aunt — who did her best to boost Will’s self-esteem through Dolly Parton’s music and a plethora of wise Southern aphorisms — once considered joining the pageant, Will and her best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush) sign up in protest of the pageant’s rigid standards.

The complex mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the film is a key element to its success. Rosie never outright body-shames her daughter, yet their relationship is defined by the mother’s projected fears. This is seen in an emotional confrontation between Will and Rosie, where Aniston’s performance shines. Rosie’s backstory doesn’t absolve her of blame when it comes to Will’s poor self-esteem, but the moment is impactful and incredibly real. Their relationship is flawed and has been shaped by their mutual insecurities, which is an honest reflection of the reality of many such relationships.

Dumplin’ is an admirable film, as it focuses on the problematic venue of a beauty pageant but doesn’t demonize the expression of femininity. The film’s version of the classic makeover trope is infectiously and unapologetically fun. With help from drag queens, the girls learn how to act on stage and access their own particular version of femininity, and we finally see Will let go of her internalized misogyny and embrace herself. This is a moment is validation not physical transformation. Will finally lets out who she has been inside all along.

Because of Fletcher’s previous work in the romantic comedy genre, her use of prototypical teen rom-com moments here is especially evident, and how she plays with them is that much more satisfying. The director also makes a point of excluding certain tropes rather than subverting them. Instead of Will vying for her crush Bo’s attention and affection, she has both relatively early on in the movie. But she has to go through her own journey to reach a point where she can believe and accept that affection.

Dumplin’ declares that there is power in expressing femininity and solidarity. The film is about internal self-worth and the relationships that support that. The only issue with this inward focus is that it excuses the external and institutional factors that are to blame for Will’s internalized fears. Many of the real barriers for Will are removed; there are one or two instances of high school boys bullying Will about her weight and a shady look from one beauty queen, but for the most part, Will is in an accepting environment. She just has to accept herself. This exclusion of actual institutional and social barriers waters down the film’s message.

While the film makes a great case for how Will becomes happier when she changes her relationship with her body and builds her self esteem by supporting other women, Dumplin’ notably does not go so far as to say that society should shift to accept and love all bodies. The focus is on individual change, not wider social change. Movies aimed at younger audiences can absolutely be political, but this film stops short of telling us what should be changed.

There are some other problems with the film, too. The drag queens are reduced to a two-dimensional plot device for Will’s further development, and there are moments of unclear writing, such as with the unrealized subplots about competition between city and small-town pageants. Even with these issues, though, its feminist themes distinguish Dumplin’ among similar movies, standing out as a coming-of-age movie for a new era for daring to have a direct political stance at all.

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An early 20th-century vaudeville performer-turned silent film star in a film student's body. Currently watching too many movies and writing too many essays in Santa Cruz, CA.