On the surface, “Dumplin’” seems like every other angsty teen movie — Willowdean Dickson (Danielle Macdonald, “Patti Cake$”) has a strained relationship with her mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston, “Mother’s Day”), and drama ensues because Willowdean feels like Rosie will never understand her. The expected layer of social commentary that always seems to be present in Netflix movies lies in Willowdean’s physical appearance. To say it bluntly, Willowdean Dickson is fat.
Set in a small town in Texas, “Dumplin’” uses the old-fashioned beauty pageant community to explore the struggles of remaining body positive in a world where it seems like the only thing people really notice about you is your weight. Though the movie’s main focus is on Willowdean’s introspective journey, there is an underlying tension surrounding the role of pageants in our society. Some of the characters define it as a way to perpetuate internalized sexism while others enjoy the ability to connect with like-minded girls and wear pretty dresses. Whatever way you see it, “Dumplin’” carefully tackles both views and points out the flaws in each conceptualization of beauty pageants.
The way Willowdean perceives herself and projects her frustrations on the world is what makes her character so relatable and why “Dumplin’” is more than simply a dramatic teen movie. The façade she puts on as a resigned fat-girl is reminiscent of the way most people feign self-confidence in the real world. As the movie progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that Willowdean is not the assured adult she pretends to be, and she is surely not as accepting of all bodies as she likes to think she is. This realization helps the film turn the concept of body-positivity as we see it in the media on its head — no longer are we expected to jump on board with loving ourselves right from the get-go. There is an understanding that truly learning to accept yourself is a journey with seemingly no end.
There is, of course, also a romantic aspect to Willowdean’s life. Her workplace crush, Bo (Luke Benward, “Life of the Party”), is where we first see Willowdean’s internal conflict between her weight and her confidence. His interest, according to Willowdean, is simply that of friendship, but, to the audience and her best friend, it’s something more. Luckily, Willowdean doesn’t find herself simply because a boy showed interest in her, but Bo does play a key role in helping her realize that the way the world sees her is not the same way she or her mother see her.
“Dumplin’” is a film set up to help the Netflix build-up its repertoire of “diverse” and “representative” content. Historically, though, the company has had a difficult time addressing difficult topics like body image and, for them, “representation” can become a buzzword that is only there for investors and the company’s reputation, rather than actually adding anything to the way films approach and challenge conventional beauty standards. Though shows like “Insatiable” highlight the company’s lack of genuine concern for the industry, “Dumplin’” presents an understanding of the complicated issues teenage girls, and adult women, face on a day-to-day basis.
Like all movies about finding yourself, “Dumplin’” includes a training montage, this one made more interesting because it features the drag queens who help Willowdean in her journey of self-discovery. These drag queens are essential to Willowdean’s success and add a bit of color, both to the cast and to her wardrobe. The drag queens aren’t the only break from traditional Hollywood characters — “Dumplin’” has a very apparent lack of mean girls. Sure, there are the contestants that judge her, but the friction isn’t solely from the obvious beauty queen in Willowdean’s age bracket. Instead, “Dumplin’” emphasizes the impact of a damaged mother-daughter relationship and gives more room to the development of both characters.
“Dumplin’” enters the Netflix queue at an opportune time: It gives Netflix users a feel-good escape in the stressful period of finals and a break from the onslaught of holiday movies. Though the movie’s characters can be frustrating, the cliché message of accepting yourself is one we all need to hear every once in a while.