You’d expect an uplifting Dolly Parton soundtrack to be more effective at saving a film like Dumplin’. This is the story of a plus sized young woman who enters a beauty pageant in a burst of body positive rebellion. It’s twee, syrupy and as flat as a gluten, lactose and flavour free pancake.
Even game performances from Jennifer Aniston and Danielle Macdonald, the breakout star of last year’s Patti Cake$, aren’t enough to dispel the maudlin atmosphere that haunts much of the film, which comes from 27 Dresses director Anne Fletcher. The script has been penned by debutant writer Kristen Hahn and is based on a young adult novel by Julie Murphy. Not having read the book, I can’t compare but must assume that it is less relentlessly bleak than the film born of it, considering its critical and popular success. Naturally, a story this predictable must end with a winning finale but it’s a very long time coming.
Macdonald turns out another likeable, yet insecure, leading performance as Willowdean Dickson, nicknamed ‘Dumplin’ by her former pageant belle mother Rosie (a Southern twanged Aniston, who also produces). With her mother distracted by her own celebrity status, Willowdean was brought up by her Dolly Parton obsesed, similarly over-weight, Aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley), whose death six months prior to the events of the film has made a big impact. While Rosie can’t yet bring herself to talk about her sister, Lucy’s hopeful mantras – ‘The world is filled with people who are going to try and tell you who you are but that’s for you to decide’ – echo in Willowdean’s ears
When going through Lucy’s boxed up possessions, Willowdean discovers an abandoned application form from 1993 that reveals her Aunt once dreamed of being Miss Teen Bluebonnet herself but could never get past the burning feeling that she was the wrong size. In a burst of confidence, Willowdean vows to finish what her Aunt started all those years before and enter the competition. It’s not about winning, it’s about making a point: ‘a revolution in heels’. Where Dumplin’ flails is in the collapse of faith that its protagonist almost immediately suffers after applying, which is expressed in a whole lot of moping.
Though the film is set in the present, you’d be forgiven for assuming this was a period piece. A solitary nod to social media is offset by the vintage soundtrack, deeply traditional narrative and grainy film quality. Cinematographer Elliot Davis infuses Fletcher’s screen with brown hues, whilst the music is entirely routed in Parton’s heyday. Willowdean’s brawny and attractive colleague cum love interest (Luke Benward) nails a bygone aesthetic and her quirky goth-friend Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus) could have been in The Breakfast Club. Rather than hitting at nostalgia, the effect leaves the film feeling outdated.
It seems likely that Fletcher and company were aiming for something more in line with Adam Shankman’s take on Hairspray from 2007 but they’ve missed that film’s bouncey energy and freewheeling charm by a country (and western) mile. A climactic drag act tribute that ought to be game changing is terribly muted, with the performers merely miming along to Dolly’s greatest hits. On the subject of Parton, each and all of her songs in the film are abridged to snippets so short that they barely register; frankly, the new ones don’t. Try as it might to hammer home good will and joyful optimism, Dumplin’ is only very rarely toe tapping fun.