I heard about Dumplin’ thanks to the BookTube community on YouTube. Apparently the novel is supposed to be quite good. I do have an eBook copy of it but have not yet sat down to read it so I wasn’t able to compare the book to the movie. I was mostly interested in the film because I had heard that Jennifer Aniston had been involved with it from the very first stages, and the premise of the story sounded like something that could be fun. An overweight teenager, Willow Dean, joins a beauty pageant run by her former Beauty Queen mother to make a statement about pageants and the expectations put on young girls because of them, as well as to take a stand against her mother’s expectations for her. It is set in Texas and involves a lot of Dolly Parton.
At the beginning of the film we are introduced to a variety of interesting themes. There is of course the concept of fallen beauty queens (what has happened to Willow Dean’s mother after her pageant win?), and the issue of self-esteem and how low self-confidence can impact the way others see you (but is it really how they see you, or just how you think they see you?). Unfortunately neither of these themes is well developed throughout the rest of the film. Willow Dean has low self-esteem, despite putting on a good face and she actually judges others quite a bit the way she feels they judge her. We see some of those feelings come to actual conflict but there is never any real resolution, and the issue of Willow Dean’s judging others never is addressed. The only follow up to the “fallen beauty queens” theme is a punchline Willow Dean delivers to a fellow pageant participant for no reason other than she takes an instant dislike to her.
On top of these thematic issues, the relationship between Willow Dean and her mother is very underdeveloped. We are told over and over again how awful her mother can be about the weight and the pageantry expectations but the only thing we actually see is a working mother, who very clearly loves her daughter, that sometimes fails to adequately communicate that feeling. Again, there is no meaningful resolution here. There is also the relationship with Willow Dean’s aunt, which is shown briefly at the beginning of the story to be loving and supportive. Willow Dean has clearly idolized her aunt but we don’t get much beyond their shared love of Dolly Parton, and donuts.
The major problem with this film is that it is fueled by teenage angst, and the worst kind at that, the unjustified kind. Willow Dean has a loving mother, supportive friends, and a really nice guy who is into her, yet she pushes them all away because of her own insecurities. Then, she spends the majority of the film on a revenge plot against her mother for no real reason. She sort of comes to a conclusion about her lack of confidence and how she has been projecting that onto others at the end of the film but the path laid out for that realization is so small and weak that it feels like her epiphany comes out of nowhere.
This film could have been about so much more than its poster premise of an overweight girl in a beauty pageant but every time it had the chance to dive into some deeper themes, it cut away from them quickly to focus back on all of that teenage angst. Suffice it to say it was a disappointment and not very much of an endorsement for me to pick up the book.