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Netflix’s Dumplin’ sweetly celebrates teen girls and Dolly Parton

Jennifer Aniston and Danielle Macdonald star in a Texas teen beauty pageant comedy, with original songs from Dolly herself.

Danielle Macdonald and Jennifer Aniston in Dumplin’.
Danielle Macdonald and Jennifer Aniston in Dumplin’.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

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The premise: Small-town Texas teen Willowdean Dickson (Danielle Macdonald), the daughter of former beauty queen Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), was taught by her aunt to love Dolly Parton and herself, even though her plus-sized frame doesn’t align with typical pageant beauty standards. Now, after her aunt’s passing, she decides to enter the local pageant, which is the oldest one in Texas — and which her mother now directs.

What it’s about: Based on a 2015 YA novel by the same name that was praised for its body positivity, Dumplin’ is a light comedy with a good heart and a winning star in Macdonald, who is fresh off her triumph in the critically praised 2017 film Patti Cake$. Here, she stars in a more formulaic film, which borrows notes from both teen rom-coms and beauty pageant movies like Miss Congeniality.

The love of Dolly Parton that Willowdean and her best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush) have shared since they were children drives the film forward — and they’re in luck, because Parton herself wrote some new songs for the movie, including “Girl in the Movies,” which has been nominated for a Golden Globe. The movie is suffused with Parton’s brand of cheeky confidence, and nobody embodies that identity better than Willowdean, who is mostly pretty happy with who she is.

A romance subplot — the hot new boy who works with Willowdean at the local diner seems to like her, but she can’t really believe someone like him would want to be with her — exposes some of her insecurities. But she and several other girls who enter the pageant upend some of its more archaic and paternalistic ideals. And with the help of a few drag queens, they all find their inner Dolly and, more importantly, their real inner selves.

The movie focuses solidly on Willowdean and her friends, but as Rosie, Aniston (who also served as a producer on the film) turns in a sympathetic performance as a mother who just wants the best for her daughter, and who doesn’t conform to the usual “pageant mom” stereotypes.

Still, it’s not a particularly fresh plot, and the movie’s screenplay feels a tad limp, devoid of some of the potential for comedy. But Dumplin’ still manages to be entertaining, and if it hammers on its message a little too often and a little too clumsily, it’s still a fun romp at heart.

Critical consensus: Dumplin’ has garnered mostly mixed reactions in early reviews. At the Hollywood Reporter, Caryn James praises Macdonald’s performance while calling the rest of the film “well-meaning” but “creaky and formulaic.” At the Guardian, Jake Nevins calls it “boringly conventional,” but notes that Macdonald is “sassy and sympathetic” while also praising Aniston’s performance.

Where to watch: Dumplin’ is streaming on Netflix.

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