“Figure out who you are and do it on purpose”. That is exactly what the movie Dumplin’ on Netflix does, as the film tells a compelling story about learning how to embrace body positivity and loving who you are, imperfections and all. Amaan Akhtar reviews the movie and provides us with many reasons to give this movie a watch, especially if we need a reminder on self-love.
There’s always a movie that brings a refreshing new perspective on a topic. And Dumplin’ does just that, as a body positivity film that tells an emotional and deeply moving story about self-love and retaliating against society’s beauty standards. But the story is told in a fascinating way as it explores the struggles of measuring up to the ideal body shape, shown through the main character, Willowdean (Will) Dickson, where she battles with her insecurities through her relationships.
Set 6 months after her Aunt Lucy’s death, the movie shows Will struggling to cope without her presence during that summer. Her aunt was not only a role model and parental figure, but also a great frame of reference for Will in terms of body confidence. Without Aunt Lucy’s guidance, Will gets absorbed into her insecurities, which coupled with grief becomes disastrous on-screen and this bleeds into all of her relationships throughout the film.
And this is most poignant in her relationship with her mum Rosie (played by Jennifer Aniston). She has fought her entire life to keep her slim figure, so she can look the ideal part for her role as a judge and former winner in the annual ‘Miss Teen Bluebonnet’ pageant. Because of her hectic schedule working 2 different jobs, Rosie often neglected Will during her childhood and always left her daughter to be raised by her (now deceased) sister. This neglect, and their unresolved grief (that is apparent when they discuss what to do with Aunt Lucy’s belongings), leads to many heated disputes between mother and daughter.
It is clear that Will doesn’t believe that she measures up (quite literally) to her mother’s standards of beauty. And this becomes evident during a heart-breaking scene when Rosie holds a regional pageant winner dearly, and Will has a wistful look in her eyes. As if she is wondering whether her mum would love her more if she weren’t fat, as she considers herself to be.
Although this is a radical view, can anyone blame her for feeling this way? After all, her mum constantly calls her “Dumplin’ “ - what sounds like a harmless, innocent nickname. But to Will it feels derogatory, and ultimately the name leads to her physically assaulting a bully and being suspended from school. Cue to one of the major arguments with her mum about the nickname: who wants her to “have opportunities since its harder for big girls”. Will resents her mother’s advice since Aunt Lucy never made Will feel bad about her weight. While Rosie speaks from the perspective of a concerned parent struggling to financially support her family.
Shortly after the fight, Will discovers an uncompleted pageant form in one of Aunt Lucy’s boxes. This bewilders her, as Lucy was always fiercely determined in anything she set her mind to. So it shocked Will to see that her Aunt never entered the pageant out of fear. Ultimately, her resentment towards her mother and this startling discovery lead to Will entering the pageant. Her best friend Ellen supports her decision and they set out entering the competition together with the agenda of treating it “like a protest in heels”.
However, what initially starts out as a simple coming-of-age movie quickly becomes much more complex. We hear Willowdean echo empowering phrases such as “A swimsuit body is a body with a swimsuit on it”, and calling out her mum to sign her form – otherwise Rosie is stating that her daughter is not an ‘equal’ to the other girls in the competition. But this inspiring stand for body positivity is short lived.
The movie introduces Millie, who is also an overweight teenager who wishes to enter the beauty pageant. Will dismisses her decision to join this protest in heels, simply because Will doesn’t want to be “the Joan of Arc of fat girls”. When in reality, Millie seems comfortable with her weight and it has been her dream to enter the ‘Miss Teen Bluebonnet’ competition since she was 8 years old. Will’s fat shaming attitude to Millie makes us reconsider whether Will has ever felt truly comfortable with what she looks like herself.
And this is highlighted further with her best friend, who slowly develops a liking to aspects of the competition such as the pageant dance routines. Ellen changes her stance on the pageant and believes that they can make a point without ruining the experience for the other girls. But Will disagrees, believing that their protest should ruin the event. As a result, Will inevitably body shames her best friend by saying she isn’t “built for the revolution”, and looks like one of the girls who could win easily without trying. She is effectively saying that Ellen could never relate to her situation, as she has a dainty frame that people always seek to achieve.
But it is during these moments where the film shines, as Ellen aptly states, “Has it occurred to you that I feel as out of place as you do?”
We as the audience finally understand what the film is hinting at. No matter what you look like, no one is truly 100% confident with their appearance. Their fight ends with Ellen pointing out that she never thought of Will as fat. And she isn’t the only one to say this to the protagonist.
In between all of this pageant drama, Bo (Will’s love interest) constantly flirts with her at the diner where they both work. But she cannot understand why a handsome guy like him could ever be interested in someone like her. Their first date goes awry, when an insecurity about her weight flares up and she leaves abruptly. She eventually confronts him about his interest in her, leading to Bo responding with that he never “thought she was the type to care about what people think”. He asserts that he finds her beautiful, but she does not accept hearing those words.
And we are left rooting for a girl who cannot seem to love herself even in the slightest.
The film carefully sprinkles remarks about body insecurities that various characters admit about themselves, to emphasize how easy it is for us as human beings to focus on our flaws. We are our own worse critics. And sometimes we need someone else to snap us out of it, and to remind us that we are perfect just the way we are. But the way this happens for Will is through an unexpected, but fascinating sub-plot…
Overall, the movie is superbly done, and is worth a watch for anyone who needs a reminder about the importance of self-love. Thankfully, Willowdean eventually gets there in the end as she learns to love who she is, just like Aunt Lucy taught her. She makes her way through a story filled with drag queens, a Dolly Parton soundtrack, inspiring quotes and entertaining pageant rehearsal montages, that will surely inspire everyone to learn to love themselves just a little bit more. Imperfections and all.
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