In the comedy “Dumplin’,” the sometimes sweet and occasionally sour story is just another excuse for packaged uplift. The title refers to the unwelcome nickname that the teenage Willowdean, a.k.a. Will (an irrepressible Danielle Macdonald), has been given by her mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston, fine if miscast). A former beauty queen, Rosie devotes much of her energy to pageants, including the local Miss Teen Bluebonnet contest. Rosie has obvious issues with Will, who seems as reasonably sane and together as anyone her age. She’s pretty, smart, mindful. But the nickname suggests that her mother sees her daughter as a blob of dough — barely formed, malleable, disposable.
The character’s preferred name — Will — telegraphs that she is already self-actualized, thank you. This being an aspirational comedy, though, she has to endure the usual teen-movie trials and tribulations, including particularly nasty assaults on both her spirit and flesh. She is teased, insulted and dismissed, and also forced to wear teetering heels and smile for her lessers. Will suffers, but she also receives help on her journey. Specifically, she is buoyed by wall-to-wall Dolly Parton songs, a couple of other supposed outsiders and an egregiously tokenized group of drag queens, who eagerly and without a jot of believability dispense sequins, beauty tips and den-mother advice to Will and her friends.
What initially lifts “Dumplin’” is that Will is already comfortable in her own skin and generously proportioned body when the story kicks in, and has no problem taking on haters. Her spirit and love for Dolly Parton were bequeathed to her by Rosie’s sister, Will’s beloved Aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley), a big woman who has recently died. Will is still in mourning, but also living her life, working and hanging with her bestie (Odeya Rush). Her only real problem is Rosie, who regularly leaves Will salads in the fridge, meals that read like a reproach. Rosie is monstrous, or really should be, but that would make for a very different movie than this adamant smile- and tear-jerker.
Based on the 2015 young-adult novel by Julie Murphy that shares its title, the movie takes place in a generic fantasy of a small town where working-class life looks comfortably middle class. After the usual introductions and fussing, the story gets down to business, which mostly involves Will’s sudden struggle for self-acceptance. Her newfound doubt emerges when she starts a tentative romance with a hunky cutie, Bo (Luke Benward), who, like many of the movie’s high schoolers looks as if he’s already graduated from college. There’s something percolating between them, but Will freaks when, mid-kiss, Bo’s hand caresses her back or, as she thinks of it, her back fat.
Will retreats, stricken by uncertainty. For once, she isn’t looking at herself through her own and Aunt Lucy’s accepting eyes, but through the punishing, disapproving gaze of others (like Rosie and the town’s clods). It’s a promising, poignant crisis that the director Anne Fletcher swamps with gauzy sentimentalism and cutesy comedy, particularly once Will decides to turn a beauty pageant into a means of personal revolt. Before long the pageant takes over the story, and Will’s rebellious gesture against conformity becomes just another way that girls of any size can assert their worth. It’s also where Fletcher, whose work here is strictly, drearily functional, snaps awake.
Macdonald was sensational in the under-loved indie comedy “Patti Cake$,” and she easily holds the screen here, too, even when working on fumes and with dumb shtick. She and an energetic cast that also includes the very good Maddie Baillio and Harold Perrineau keep you hopeful even when the storytelling grinds to a crawl, which happens frequently. Kristin Hahn’s script gives Will sassy lines and too many tears, but the filmmakers never give this character a real, searching, complex inner life. They give her problems to solve, hurdles to clear. They turn emotional complexity into affirmations and a potentially transformational character into a you-go-girl cliché.
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Rated PG-13 for some reason. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.
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