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Her whole life, Willowdean "Will" Dickson (Danielle Macdonald) has felt the pressure of being the daughter of ex-beauty queen and current Miss Teen Bluebonnet beauty pageant director and judge Rosie (Jennifer Aniston). Believing her mother cared more about the pageant than her and that she was embarrassed to have a plus-sized daughter, Will's comfort comes in the form of her aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley), who shares Will's love of Dolly Parton and encourages her not to let what others say about her.
After her aunt's death, however, Will feels more alone than ever—and more resentful of her mother and the beauty pageant than before. Now determined to take a stand against her mother and the pageant, Will decides to enter the pageant as protest—finding unlikely allies in fellow outcasts Millie (Maddie Baillio) and Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus). But as the pageant grows closer and Will finds her plan driving away those she cares about, she will have to turn to her aunt's advice to help her cope with her loss—and realize her feelings of self-loathing may not be from the source she believes them to be.
At first glance, Netflix's latest original teen film appears to be from the same vein as their film from earlier in the year, Sierra Burgess is a Loser. Both are inspired from books, and both focus around a plus-sized teen struggling with insecurities. There is, however, one striking difference between the two, and one that will hopefully prevent Dumplin' from being as critically divisive as Sierra Burgess is a Loser. As played by Danielle Macdonald, Willowdean Dickson is a much more likable and sympathetic protagonist than Sierra Burgess.
A crucial difference between the two is that, for all of her bitter and judgmental actions, Will never uses her insecurities as an excuse for her behavior. The film's progression, rather than portraying Will as a complete victim of body shaming and bullying, shows that much of her poor self-esteem manifests from her own insecurities and her own resentful feelings towards her mother's profession and her envy of the pageant contestants she believes her mother feels more love for than her. This point is driven home by Odeya Rush's Ellen and Luke Benward's Bo, Will's respective best friend and co-worker who make clear to Will that the people who care about her don't think she's fat and that being judgmental about the people who feels inferior to makes her no better than the bullies she's trying to stand up against.
The rest of the film's performances line alongside Macdonald, with Jennifer Aniston giving a nuanced portrayal of Will's beauty pageant obsessed mother, showing that beneath her veneer of the fully in-control, no-nonsense control freak is a woman coming to grips with her loss and dealing with insecurities very much in the same vein as her daughter's. Maddie Baillio, fresh off her starring role in Fox's Hairspray Live!, plays Millie with the same strengths she showed in her take on Tracy Turnblad; allowing Millie to become a sweet and lovable character while also keeping her grounded to where she doesn't come off as cloying or oblivious. And while their roles aren't nearly as developed, Bex Taylor-Klaus and Dove Cameron are able to use their time to become charming characters, with Cameron's role working to further Will's character development in a small but powerful way. Harold Perrineau also gives a profound performance as Will's drag queen mentor Lee.
Overall, Dumplin' is a film that shouldn't become lost in Netflix's recent slew of body positivity themed works—which have all had mixed to poor reception. With strong characters and performances and a message that not only resonates with today's culture, but strengthens over the course of the film, Dumplin' is a Netflix feature that should be on everyone's radar.
Score: 9.5 out of 10 Dolly Parton drag show performances.