Dolly Parton isn’t the star of the sugar-sweet pageant movie “Dumplin’ ” — but she kind of IS the star all the same.
Though the beloved singer-songwriter-producer-actress-legend isn’t part of the cast, she is a constant presence throughout, from the Dolly-dominated soundtrack to the place of honor Dolly occupies in the hearts of key characters to a couple of performance pieces.
“Dumplin’ ” isn’t a darkly comic satire a la “Drop Dead Gorgeous” (1999), and it certainly can’t compete with the indie originality of “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006). But it sure outshines those awful “Miss Congeniality” movies, thanks to the feel-good story, the likable cast — and an absolute treasure of a soundtrack featuring a half-dozen new songs from Parton (and co-writer/producer Linda Perry), as well as Dolly teaming up with Sia, Miranda Lambert and Macy Gray, among others, for updated versions of some of her classic hits.
How great is that?
Directed with an appropriately light touch by Anne Fletcher and featuring a crisp screenplay by Kristin Hahn (adapting the young adult novel by Julie Murphy), “Dumplin’ ” stars Danielle MacDonald in a winning performance as Willowdean Dickson, a plus-size teenager living in Clover City, Texas — one of those movie towns of a certain size where everybody knows everybody else.
Jennifer Aniston plays Willowdean’s mom, Rosie, who was crowned Miss Teen Bluebonnet in 1991 and has been entrenched in the pageant world ever since.
Rosie calls her daughter “Dumplin’,” a nickname Willowdean despises. She doesn’t do it out of cruelty; it’s more out of cluelessness.
As Willowdean remembers her childhood, her mother was often occupied elsewhere — but Rosie’s sister, the vivacious Aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley), was always there, filling the young girl’s days with sunshine and love — and heaping helpings of Dolly Parton music, sage advice based on Dolly Parton quotes, and even Dolly-themed parties.
Alas, Aunt Lucy barely makes it past the opening credits. And once she’s gone, it’s just Rosie and Willowdean, living under the same roof but often feeling as if they’re miles apart from one another.
(Willowdean’s resentment of her mother isn’t entirely justified. Yes, Rosie is obsessed with running pageants. But she’s a working single mother doing it all on her own. Most of the time Aunt Lucy was watching Willowdean, it was probably because Rosie was working long days to keep the family afloat.)
As a teenager, Willowdean is sometimes subjected to cruel and stupid taunts at school or at the local swimming pool, and yes, it hurts — but this isn’t one of those teen movies where the overweight girl is miserable and friendless and painfully shy before undergoing some magical transformation.
Willowdean is no wallflower. She’s always out and about with her lifelong best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush), who is popular and pretty and cool, and shares Willowdean’s love for all things Dolly Parton.
Then there’s the cute new boy in town, Bo (Luke Benward), who works with Willowdean at the diner and has a crush on her. Not to mention a recent incident in which Willowdean took down a bully in dramatic fashion, prompting Ellen to exclaim, “I can’t believe you got suspended on the first day of school, you over-achiever!”
So yep, there’s a lot going on in Willowdean’s world — and that’s BEFORE she really shakes things up by entering the Miss Bluebonnet Pageant, much to the shock of her mother.
“Dumplin’ ” sometimes takes the easy road, leaning on played-out scenarios such as the bully getting kneed in the crotch, or a supportive friend saying, “You got this!” and also, “Let’s do this!” At times certain conflicts are resolved in sitcom-quick fashion; a speech and a hug, and all is well.
But there’s so much more to enjoy, from the nuanced work by Jennifer Aniston that ensures Rosie’s never a caricature of a pageant mom; to the warm and natural best-buddy chemistry between Danielle MacDonald and Odeya Rush; to that instant classic of a soundtrack courtesy of Ms. Parton, with a little help from her friends.
Netflix presents a film directed by Anne Fletcher and written by Kristin Hahn, based on the novel by Julie Murphy. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language). Running time: 110 minutes. Premieres Friday on Netflix.