By Gwen Reyes // Critic
Netflix’s newest YA novel adaptation, DUMPLIN, brings to life the glitzy world of Texas beauty pageants, but through the eyes of a young woman who sees absolutely no value in such things. That
Willowdean “Dumplin’” Dickson (Danielle Macdonald) begins her story as a young, chubby child. In the film’s early flashbacks Willowdean introduces her aunt Lucy, a vivacious light of a woman who loves two things: her niece and Dolly Parton. When Willowdean is at her lowest, Aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley) interjects lessons about being strong in the face of bullies, punctuated by many of Parton’s most healing lyrics. The impact both women – Lucy and Parton – have on Willowdean lingers in every moment of her life.
Which is what makes it all the more heartbreaking when we learn, years later, that Aunt Lucy has passed and Willowdean is now left with no buffer between her image-obsessed beauty queen mother and herself. Oh, did I fail to mention that Willowdean’s mother also happens to be the director for Texas’s most prestigious beauty pageant? Can’t believe I left that part out. Luckily for Willowdean and her mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), she has never been interested in her mother’s feathery and sequined world.
When Willowdean decides to enter the beauty pageant after finding Aunt Lucy’s discarded application from decades earlier, she doesn’t realize that her decision is going to set into motion changes in all her relationships, a new found appreciation for drag queens, and the attention of a boy who just wants Willowdean to see the beautiful woman he sees.
DUMPLIN’ never shies away from kicking the viewer in the guts. And I don’t mean this in a negative way. Being a teen is a kick in the guts, I was one. I remember. Willowdean’s struggle with body acceptance, self-esteem, and growing friendships is so relatable. Choking back tears will happen, as the emotional highs in DUMPLIN’ are almost always punctuated with a crushing obstacle. But the payoff is sweet for Willowdean, who does walk away from her own story strong, confident, and in love with herself. This is a message for teens, but is, inherently, universal.
DUMPLIN’ is now available to stream on Netflix. The Dolly Parton-filled soundtrack is available on all streaming services.