Turn of the screw

Film Review: Dumplin'

14 January 19 words: Miriam Blakemore-Hoy

Netflix original film Dumplin' made us laugh AND cry, but was it actually any good? 

Director: Anne Fletcher

Starring: Danielle MacDonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush 

Running time: 110 mins

I sat down to watch Dumplin’ last night – the Netflix original film starring Jennifer Aniston and Danielle MacDonald. I had some preconceptions, I watched a third of the trailer before giving it a whirl. It’s a straight forward coming-of-age, small town, big dreams comedy, right? With a contemporary nod to the on-trend topics of loving yourself for who you are and standing up for what’s right, and all the rest of it. With a Dolly Parton saturated soundtrack. Great. So, I watched it. And I laughed, a bit. But not that much. And I cried, a little at the end. And then it finished. And I thought, oh… Is that it?  

But let’s start at the beginning. Here’s the lowdown: Willowdean (MacDonald) lives in a small Texan town with her mum, Rosie (Aniston). They don’t have much in common, at least on the surface. They don’t look alike, Willowdean is on the plus sized side, while Rosie is a former beauty pageant queen who only eats salad. They don’t spend much time together and they don’t have much of a shared history, with Willowdean being brought up by Rosie’s sister Lucy, while Rosie works full time to bring in the rent until a tragedy strikes which drives them further apart. Then for reasons that I won’t go into (no spoilers), Willowdean impulsively signs up for the upcoming teen beauty pageant that Rosie is helping with, with designs on grabbing her mother’s attention whether she likes it or not, and to make Rosie accept her for who she is. The only problem is, once she enrols, so do other misfits from the school, and suddenly she finds herself the leader of an entire revolution.

Even if the message is really important and really relevant, too much shouting about it will make it clichéd

There is a certain degree of predictability about the whole thing, and sometimes that can work in a film’s favour, but I just can’t see it in this case. I spent most of the film waiting for some big twist to happen, or some huge crisis, but the twists and turns that did occur lacked the spontaneity and drama I was craving. The characters were pretty likeable, especially Willowdean and her little insurgent group. But Rosie is very likeable too. And I wasn’t sure she was meant to be that likeable from the beginning? Isn’t she supposed to be the “Big Bad”, bullying Willowdean about her weight and her attitude on life, while she spends all her own free time training girls on how to look poised and feminine and attractive? Jennifer Aniston has been in some stinkers in her time but she has also surprised critics by pulling unexpected performances out of the bag, like Cake (2014). When it comes down to it, she provides great depth for the character which immediately provokes empathy. In some ways, if this was Rosie’s story not Willowdean’s there would be a better more developed story arc.

I do have to mention though, that Danielle MacDonald is great as Willowdean, and there is one particularly memorable scene where the façade that she shows in front of the world cracks under the gentle and caring behaviour of love interest and leaving her to question just how much she actually accepts herself. But this is one of the only moments in the film where it didn’t seem like the plot was trying to fit itself around some sort of clunky agenda but actually treated the character like a real and complex human being. Even if the message is really important and really relevant, too much shouting about it will make it clichéd. Perhaps there was just too much political and social dialogue trying to fit between the actual lines because it lacked the authenticity that I was banking on.   

Did you know? Julie Murphy, the author of the book that Dumplin' is based on, makes a cameo at the end of the film

Dumplin' is available on Netflix now

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