As Dolly Parton once said, it’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world. Even harder, I suspect, when you think that others see you as a cubic zirconia. In the highly anticipated Netflix adaptation of Julie Murphy’s hit 2015 novel of the same name, Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald) – nicknamed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty-queen mother Rosie (Jennifer Aniston) – has to confront her own right to shine as she enters a local beauty pageant.
After Insatiable, Netflix’s disastrous Jenga tower of fat-girl tropes, expectations ran high. And Dumplin’, thank goodness, is no Insatiable. A classic self-acceptance tale packed with sequinned swagger, it hits the essential beats of coming-of-age storytelling. Macdonald is perfect: there’s no Bridget Jones-ing here, but a talented fat actor blending brashness and vulnerability. As Rosie, Aniston modulates the wattage on her star power to surrender the centre-stage, thoughtlessly yelling her daughter’s humiliating nickname across the school car park and obsessing over fitting into her original pageant gown.
If anything, Dumplin’ shares a common heart with Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. Both feature Odeya Rush (here as Willowdean’s best friend), who, as Lady Bird’s Jenna, gives us a rare on-screen image: the popular girl who is cool, not cruel. Dumplin’ also ditches the “bitch” narrative with Dove Cameron’s Southern belle Bekah Colter, groomed from birth for pageant stardom and a paragon of sweetness. Even Callie, whose closeness to Ellen threatens the girls’ friendship, is softened for the screen, so there’s not a single mean girl – and the only competition for Willowdean’s lollipop-chewing love interest, Bo (Luke Benward), is in her own head.
Macdonald is perfect: there’s no Bridget Jones-ing here, but a talented fat actor blending brashness and vulnerability
Director Anne Fletcher and writer Kristin Hahn judiciously move much of the romance to the sidelines in favour of rounding out the female relationships. And they keep the fat-acceptance fight where it’s needed: changing our reaction to fat women, not the women themselves. Fellow fat schoolmate Millie Michalchuk (Maddie Baillio) steals every scene as a tirelessly sunny girl determined to be a real beauty queen. And, delightfully, there’s no eating of feelings, no admission of self-hatred – barely any eating at all, actually. “I’m not the Joan of Arc of fat girls,” retorts Willowdean, dismissing any bonding over size. Millie rehearses the dance steps, joins the fun runs and hones her impressive singing talent. She never once loses her cast-iron faith in herself, even in the shadow of potential disapproval from her own mother (Kathy Najimy – these days very slim, but a memorable former custodian of the mantle of unapologetic fat joy).
So often, Dumplin’, in asking us to reconsider our assumptions about female bodies, feels like an embarrassment of riches. But if there is anything to give us pause, it’s that joy can come at someone else’s expense. An exception to the overwhelmingly white cast, Harold Perrineau’s drag-queen fairy godmother, Lee, is truly fabulous. But it’s uncomfortable that as one of only two black characters – the other a hapless co-worker – he largely exists in Willowdean’s service. Most glaring is the selling short of queer-coded Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus), who swaps a fully realised personality for a great haircut and some stompy sloganeering. As an anti-patriarchy badass with a flair for dress-up, there was more to unpack – and even on a second viewing I couldn’t quite work out whether she’s nursing a crush on Millie (who wouldn’t?). These oversights could easily have been avoided – especially since Dumplin’s biggest strength is deliberately centring the experience of fatness while still retaining universal appeal.
These flaws acknowledged, Dumplin’ is destined for repeat viewing and, very possibly, cult status. In 1996, I was 16 years old, a size 22, smart and weird, with just one shop to find clothes in (and not cute clothes). That awkward girl would weep to see incredible fat women finally allowed to flaunt their true colours like birds of paradise. Growing up in a blur of John Hughes, I knew it was possible to be an attractive misfit – if you looked like Mary Stuart Masterson or Ally Sheedy. Even now, with the growing visibility of positively regarded fat women, the burden is still on them to do the work: to pose in the bikinis, celebrate the rolls and answer to the trolls. Fat women are required to be a public inspiration to women of all sizes, while at the same time still being privately regarded as a cautionary tale. Meanwhile, women who are clearly thin in any non-Hollywood context become the faces and bodies of acceptance. With so much space still to be occupied, Dumplin’ certainly feels well-timed – and I, for one, am here for it.