Review: ‘Dumplin’ Embraces the Camp and Culture Surrounding Dolly Parton

The legend of Dolly Parton is almost as large as her hair. The singer/songwriter/entertainer deserves her place as an American treasure. There’s something about her that will always scream Americana, but her meta-humor about her career makes her stand out as an idol. There may never have been a more self-aware celebrity, and in the process, she has really took advantage of the opportunities provided to her. She’s funny, delivers one-liners better than any other singer, and found a way to live a large and legendary life.

The cult of Dolly is real, decades after her peak. Now, a film based on a novel by Julie Murphy looks to capitalize on that love. Dumplin’ follows a teenage girl named Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald) whose Aunt has recently passed away. She is still struggling to navigate her life, both as a plus sized girl and because her mother (Jennifer Aniston) continues to live in her past life as a beauty pageant queen. While Willowdean navigates her life as a teenager, including old friends (Odeya Rush), new friends (Maddie Baillio & Bex Taylor-Klaus) and boys (Luke Benward), she decides to take a step her aunt never did: take part in the beauty pageant.

What makes Dumplin’ thrive as a fun film is the overall positivity throughout. It’s a fun as hell movie, following similar stories like Whip It or Mermaids. It’s mostly a positive and cute film that they don’t really make anymore, and it loves Dolly Parton more than anything else.

Most of the performance hangs on Macdonald, who is both very funny and can show a strong range of emotion. The weakest part of the film is a twenty minute stretch about two-thirds of the way through the film, where it mostly shows Macdonald more or less give up. However, the film recaptures the magic as soon as she gets involved again, bouncing back to show genuine joy and hope from the actress. Macdonald’s laughter is infectious, and it is very hard to not love when she is on screen.

The big breakout performer should be Baillo, who already showed her strong range of talent in Hairspray Live! a couple years ago. Baillo gets real opportunities to shine as a performer, and is very charismatic. While she begins the film as an afterthought, she quickly rises due to her authenticity and charm. It’s a very fun performance, with Baillo giving 100% energy into each frame. With meatier roles, could easily become one of our go to stars moving forward.

Aniston is also very good as the mom locked into her high school days. It is a thankless role in most films, but unlike similar stories, we actually see her grow because of the events of the film. Does it make the movie a little sappy? Sure. But does Aniston show off some of her best work since Cake? Yes. Finally, a group of drag queens really livens the party. Harold Perrineau shines the brightest, giving an exciting and genuine performance limited screen time. However, when you look back on the film, he will be one of the first things to come to mind.

The movie also benefits from Dolly’s participation in a big way. Her music, including a very good original song “Girl in the Movies,” helps sell the overall vibe. While it does not specifically push the narrative other than getting the character in contact with the Drag Queens who mentor them, it does give the finished product the feel of having a place and sensibility. It certainly loves Dolly, but it also uses the singer to help guide the characters to something special. In that regard, it is certainly very sweet.

Dumplin’ will not reconfigure the Netflix business model, but it should certainly gain some steam. It’s a feel good, body positive film, and that’s a good thing to see the streaming service invest in. It could even find itself in the Oscar discussion, with Parton already earning the film a Golden Globe nomination for song. Keep an eye on this one, and if you’re a Dolly fan, I’m not sure what you’re waiting for. It’s a treasure.

GRADE: (★)

What do you think of Dumplin’? Let us know in the comments below! 

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