Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"The romantic plot is wisely kept in its place and doesn't overwhelm the more complex story of the developing relationship between mother and daughter."

Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald) doesn't get along to well with her mother Rose (Jennifer Aniston). It's partly that nickname, doubtless used with affection in childhood, now too often adopted by others as an insult. It's partly the set of beliefs that go with it and the sense of always having been a disappointment; but Will has never made any secret of her own disappointment or how much she preferred her aunt, who has died. Smarter than one might expect given its primary subject matter, this is a film that teases out the insecurities in both mother and daughter as a decision that sets them at odds ultimately leads them to a new understanding.

That decision relates to the local beauty pageant which Rose, a former ten-time champion, has managed for years. Working day to day in a care home and clearly struggling to provide for her family, she doesn't have a lot of other joy in her life - what makes her feel good is being back up on that stage amid the glamour and the glitter and the smiling young women. She bubbles about them endlessly - about how slender and pretty they look. So when her plus-size daughter decides that she's had enough of being told there's only one way to be beautiful and enters the pageant herself, she is suddenly quite out of her depth.

This isn't a simple story of a disadvantaged hero winning over others with the power of personality and triumphing against the odds. Will immediately inspires a group of friends to follow her lead, including others her size and a young woman who prefers traditionally masculine clothes - a bigger deal than it might normally be because they're in the Deep South. Yet for all the effect she has on others, she's riddled with insecurities. It's one thing to rock a red dress onstage; it's another to accept that the young man she has a crush on could like her too. How can she overcome this, learn to open up to her audience and avoid sabotaging a prospective romance? Only with the help of a fairy dragmother and the magic of Dolly Parton.

Dumplin' may not be quite as bold as it thinks it is (there's notably little challenge to racial beauty standards, for instance, and no awkward challenges to the obvious objectification of the swimsuit round) but in as far as it goes it's a sweet little film that provides characters young women will be able to identify with without losing all sympathy for the guardians of tradition. Whilst the supporting characters could do with being better developed and Aniston's talents are somewhat underused, Macdonald is a capable lead. Dolly Parton fans will get plenty to please their ears (provided they steel themselves for the clumsy edit in the middle of Jolene) and the film succeeds well in creating an atmosphere of positivity and fun whilst still managing a few digs at the more absurd aspects of pageant culture.

The romantic plot is wisely kept in its place and doesn't overwhelm the more complex story of the developing relationship between mother and daughter, nor the drama around the pageant itself. A smart ending keeps the focus on character and although there isn't very much depth to any of this, there's enough warmth and humour and fabulousness to make for an enjoyable night out.

Reviewed on: 23 Dec 2018
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Dumplin' packshot
A plump young woman whose mother is obsessed with beauty pageants decides to challenge her assumptions by entering one herself.

Director: Anne Fletcher

Writer: Kristin Hahn, based on the book by Julie Murphy

Starring: Danielle Macdonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Luke Benward, Georgie Flores

Year: 2018

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: US


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