It would be nearly impossible to not fall in love with Patti Cake$ break-out star Danielle Macdonald in Dumplin', yet another music-themed film and a film perfectly suited to Macdonald's seemingly endless charisma and her remarkable ability to find depth where the script doesn't give her any.
Unfortunately, that's part of the problem. Despite its excessively long 110-minute running time, Dumplin' says very little while often settling for trite cliche's rather than complex meaning and actual character develop. The script by Kristin Hahn (The Departed) is based on Julie Murphy's YA novel and far too often feels like it was tailored specifically to that limited "Afterschool Special" type of audience.
While Dumplin' isn't a holiday film, its aw' shucks sentimentality would be right at home on the Hallmark Channel. If that's your thing, and it is for an awful lot of folks, then Dumplin' is definitely a film you're gonna' absolutely love. The film centers around the teenaged Willowdean (Macdonald), a good kid living in the shadow of her better mother, Rosie (a sublimely cast Jennifer Aniston), a legend in the small Texas town they call home ever since her win in the 1991 Miss Texas Blue Bonnet Pageant. It's a title you never really lose once you've won it and the fact that she now chairs the event has only helped cement her legendary status.
Willowdean, whom her mother calls Dumplin', on the other hand is remarkably ordinary and so different from her mother that you kind of can't help but wonder if she might not be adopted.
She's not, of course.
She's just Willowdean, a smart and sassy and confident young woman who also happens to be a few sizes too big for daily life let alone an actual beauty pageant. So, it's with more than a little shock and horror that our dear Rosie gets mighty offended when Willowdean announces her own plans to bring the Miss Texas Blue Bonnet pageant into the new millennium by entering the pageant herself.
For Willowdean, there's no joke involved here though Rosie can't help but think that her daughter is making a mockery of the one thing that has pretty much defined Rosie's life. However, there's a sincerity to Rosie's motivations - both paying tribute to her recently deceased aunt, who lived much of her life in Rosie's shadow as well, and Willowdean's own obvious desires to connect with a mother with whom she seemingly has nothing in common.
If this all sounds like it's going to be fairly paint-by-numbers, you can rest assured that it actually is a remarkably paint-by-numbers fam-com, that's family comedy, and it's only the incredibly strong and accomplished performances by Macdonald and Aniston that makes this a film that's truly worth your time. Director Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, The Proposal) has crafted a film that feels like it's specifically made for the small screen, though Netflix is releasing it this weekend both theatrically and through streaming channels. It's a small story that plays perfectly fine on the small screen, though its relentlessly good spirit and ginormous heart will undoubtedly win the film a legion of fans.
The real star here, as was true of Patti Cake$, is Macdonald, an Aussie actress who completely nails the smalltown Texan accent bathed within country legend Dolly Parton's multiple contributions to the soundtrack including the Golden Globe nominated song "Girl in the Movies." It's hard to imagine the film snagging much else this awards season, though Netflix has mounted campaigns for both Macdonald and Aniston and in a handful of other categories.
It ain't gonna' happen.
Take Dumplin' for what it is - a good-hearted, reasonably entertaining and relentlessly optimistic film that will play quite nicely while you're sitting in front of the television wrapping presents. In fact, I'm more than a little sure that a little bit of eggnog will only help matters and may have you singing right along with it.
Now, can someone get Danielle Macdonald an actual meaty role? This woman's ready for the big time. For now, you should watch her in Dumplin'.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic