Dumplin’: Where the Tea Is Sweet and the Love Complete, by David Bax
Dolly Parton’s contributions to Anne Fletcher’s Dumplin’ are all over the movie (about a young woman who idolizes the country singer/songwriter), including some brand new songs. But she probably also deserves a credit for the screenplay’s source material since the whole thing is arguably adapted from her famous quote, “Figure out who you are and do it on purpose,” referenced specifically by the characters. That simple turn of phrase is folksily straightforward, tough but gentle and warmly humanistic. Those are all things that describe Parton. Lucky for us, they describe Dumplin’ too.
Danielle Macdonald (Patti Cake$) plays Willowdean, the only daughter of single mother Rosie (Jennifer Aniston) a nurse and former beauty queen whose life still seems to revolve around the pageants she organizes, hosts and judges. In a fit of rebellion after the death of Rosie’s sister and Willowdean’s favorite aunt, Lucy (Hilliary Begley), Willowdean decides to sign up for her mom’s precious pageant with the plan of sabotaging it but soon finds herself making new friends (Maddie Baillio and Bex Taylor-Klaus, two of the movie’s secret weapons) and learning how to value herself on her own terms. Not all of these girls, it turns out, are vapid or evil. Some of them can even yodel! After the misstep that was Hot Pursuit, Fletcher has returned to a framework not unlike that of 2012’s underrated The Guilt Trip. Both films feature protagonists who blame their mothers for their rocky relationship before being forced to see her as a real person and understanding their own failings in the matter.
Where The Guilt Trip was a road movie, though, Dumplin’ is provincial and homebound yet never insulting or condescending to its small town milieu. The clothes—even those worn in the pageants—are not beyond the characters’ means; Rosie makes a little money on the side doing gown alterations. The faith is devout but never hateful. And the movie is equally honest about Willowdean’s plus sized proportions. Fletcher and screenwriter Kristin Hahn (adapting Julie Murphy’s novel) are sympathetic to her insecurities without validating them by patronizing her.
In this sense, Dumplin’ is doing what so many of the best country songs do, validating the inner lives of rural, lower middle class Americans without resorting to self-stereotyping (which is what many of the worst country songs do). Just like in those tunes, there is poetry, like the stenciled “LUCY” on the doorframe of the late aunt’s bedroom, which subtly fades as the movie goes on. And there is also just enough corniness that we can comfortably call it a touch of magic. For instance, Willowdean’s workplace crush (at a burger joint where the employees apparently spend most of their shifts taking out the trash and having conversations by the dumpster) gifts her a Magic 8-Ball which never fails to provide just the right answer.Dumplin’s greatest surprise (other than the fact that Sadie Hawkins dances apparently still exist) is that it apparently loves drag culture as much as it does that of country music. When Harold Perrineau shows up about halfway through and blows the walls down as Lee, a drag queen, it seems at first like a fun diversion from the main journey. But soon, Lee and the other queens are as much a part of the story as all the other flag saluting townsfolk. In retrospect, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Dumplin’ is a movie that celebrates joie de vivre and radical acceptance among people who feel like outsiders. That’s as much a part of the drag queen world as it is of Parton’s music.