Dumplin’, Netflix’s feature film adaptation of Julie Murphy’s bestselling book, shows its adaptation strings in its tale of the smalltown beauty pageant wedged between a mother and daughter, but soars in its depiction of adolescent girl friendship.
Dumplin’ is the story of a clever, self-aware Texan teenaged girl named Willowdeen (Danielle Macdonald). Struggling to connect with herself and her beauty pageant-obsessed mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), in the wake of her Aunt Lucy’s (Hilliary Begley) death, Will enters the Clover County Miss Teen Bluebonnet competition as a form of angry protest against the fat-shaming culture she and her Aunt Lucy have had to endure for their entire lives.
Directed by Anne Fletcher (The Proposal, 27 Dresses) from a script by Kristin Hahn, Dumplin’ mostly refuses to fall into “tragic fat girl” tropes, which is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Will never tries to lose weight. She accepts her body, even if she has moments when she sees it through the narrow, cruel lens of her fat-shaming peers or mother. Her moment of discomfort when hunky co-worker Bo (Luke Benward) touches her back while they are kissing is contextualized as a relatable part of awkward adolescence, rather than body horror.
Will is wonderful. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t put enough work into most of the other characters in the film, which makes the resolution of the film’s central conflicts somewhat hollow. Characters develop not because we have seen them learn or grow, but because the plot demands it. This is a common problem with book-to-film adaptations: an inability to venture too far outside of the protagonist’s perspective so fully realized in novel form, which can cause some of the other characters to fall flat in the transition to cinema.
Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the character of Rosie, who seemingly magically transforms from a fat-shaming mother who sees her daughter as a “Dumplin'” rather than a fully-realized human into an accepting parent who is proud of her daughter for being and accepting herself.
Perhaps this transition would have been better articulated with a more fully-realized depiction of the Aunt Lucy character, who appears here only in hazy recollections from Will’s perspective. I would have liked to see more scenes of Lucy as she was, in particular from Rosie’s perspective, not as she is rosily remembered, in hazy Dolly Parton dance party montages. Because we are stuck in Will’s idealized, child-like remembrances of her beloved aunt, it’s hard to get a sense of the nuances of who Lucy was a person.
This movie is ostensibly about grief, but we don’t learn enough about Lucy’s day-to-day place in Will and Rosie’s lives for the absence to truly stick, save for one scene that gives Aniston a meaty, effective freakout after Will has given Lucy’s things away. “I think I gave too much of her away,” a quietly distraught Rosie tells her daughter, making me wish Dumplin’ gave both Aniston and Macdonald more to do in the exploration of this mother-daughter relationship.
The movie flirts with class connotations, with mention of a local private school for the rich kids and Will’s part-time job at the local fast food joint, but never delves into the realities of what that might mean for Will or her mother. At one point, Rosie mentions having to take on more seamstress work because of the loss of Lucy’s income, but we don’t see any tangible examples of their financial struggle. Rather, the line is an excuse to bring up Rosie’s obsession with the pageant, poking unnecessary holes in the reality of this world.
While Dumplin’ eschews the messier elements of toxic mother-daughter relationships, working class stress, and grief, it doesn’t miss its mark in its exploration of female friendship. The relationship between best friends Will and Ellen (Odeya Rush), who first bonded over and continue to connect through a love for Dolly Parton, is the backbone of this movie. In a memorable scene that showcases just what Macdonald is capable of as a dramatic actress, Will answers her pageant prelim question on the topic of “loyalty,” turning the broad, generic question into an opportunity to deliver an impassioned monologue on the value of friendship and saying you’re sorry.
In general, Dumplin’ is at its best when it pushes back against the instinct to villainize any of its female characters and, instead, focuses on female friendship and community. In stories like this one, it is common to see the characters who are closer to the feminine ideal turned into the vapid enemy, but Dumplin’ refuses to do so. It recognizes that they, too, are caught up in an impossible-to-win beauty standard. Even if they, objectively, fall closer to that impossible ideal.
“You don’t get to decide who is part of the revolution,” El tells her at one point, after Will distances herself from her friend because El is more easily accepted by the beauty pageant community. This movie ascribes to the belief that you shouldn’t have to throw out the feminine in the feminist revolution. There isn’t a lot of criticism for the beauty pageant here, even though there easily could be. Instead, Dumplin’ represents it as a collective project these girls and women do together, and there’s something beautiful, if not naively simplistic about that depiction.
Dumplin’ prioritizes female friendship over romance, but there is romance to be had. Will’s burgeoning relationship with Bo is predictable, but sweet. It’s strength lies in just how familiar it is, reminding us how rigid the definition of teen girl protagonist usually is. Fat girls and women so rarely get to see themselves as the protagonist of a film. This is particularly problematic when you consider that more than 68% of American women wear size 14 or above, which is still somehow considered “plus size” in the American clothing industry. Some estimates find that only 2.3 percent of women’s apparel assortment is plus-size.
We have a significant over-representation of skinny girls in media, and almost no representation of the girls and women who make up most of the American viewing public. Because of this, when we do see fat female characters on screen, that media often feels the need to address it, to make the story about their fat-ness. In other words, where are all of the characters who just happen to be fat versus the characters whose stories are defined by that one identity?
As with other examples of representation of underrepresented identities, these few examples become defined by this one part of their identity. We don’t get to see a diversity in fat characters because we have so few of them. Their storylines become defined by their weight and their relationship to it, rather than a more diverse depiction of the many identities we all have. (This is also why Dumplin‘s supporting character, Millie Michalchuk, played by Maddie Baillio, is so important, as another multi-faceted teen girl character who also happens to be fat, bringing a deeper representation to this cinematic world.)
When writing about a movie like this one — which is to say, a familiar genre that tweaks said formula with more diverse representation — it is absolutely necessary to remember how important that representation is. Some critics ascribe to the philosophy that this metric should be separate from its qualities as a film, but, for me, the two are inextricably intertwined.
Dumplin’ is so important. It doesn’t completely avoid some common pitfalls of a book-to-screen adaptation, but is a fun, joyful celebration of female friendship and self-acceptance—not to mention the always welcome Dolly Parton—nonetheless, and it is an example of broader representation of female bodies outside of the rigid, thin norm that we so desperately need.