Monday, 31 December 2018

Dumplin' (2018) - Movie Review pageants. Of all the many, many symbols of human vanity, no institution can lay claim to more bruised and inflated egos than the American beauty pageant circuit. Even without getting into the horrors when the pageants are for children (lest we remember that Honey Boo Boo is on the conscience of our species), the whole enterprise is just… weird. Not to mention disheartening, as this kind of superficial road show almost seems designed to make women feel bad about themselves. I mean, sure, most of us would probably prefer someone who looks like they subsist on more than just crackers and tap water, but even with that in mind, seeing women get praised for their surface-level details? Not exactly the best thing for the old self-confidence.

This is especially true for someone like Willowdean Dickson, the daughter of a former beauty pageant winner and someone who frequently gets mocked for his size. Danielle Macdonald does great in the role, portraying an awful lot of body image dilemmas without it ever feeling like we’re feeling sorry for her in this situation. Because quite frankly, we don’t need to; she has the moxie that beauty pageants thrive on in spades. She just needs to believe in her own power. It’s a very familiar self-empowerment narrative, framed with Southern hospitality and a lot of forward-thinking in how it presents the notion of self-confidence. Specifically, which groups of people are most likely to show it, and who the rest of us could honestly learn from.

Within the main group who decide to enlist in the pageant, we have Willowdean, her best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush showing some real versatility), fellow plus-size contestant Millie (Maddie Baillio absolutely crushing it) and punk Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus showing the more rebellious side of this whole endeavour). Between the four of them, we get a nice variety on the main theme: Being self-conscious, feeling like they have something to prove, wanting to actively change people’s perceptions, and even just wanting to fun because they just want to strut their stuff. When put in conjunction with a paraphrase of an old Chris Rock routine (“No-one has more self-confidence except fat women”) as well as an incorporation of drag culture (another scene that just oozes self-confidence out of every dolled-up pore), it makes for a pretty uplifting story about body-positivity.

However, that isn’t necessarily the big thing I took away from this; rather, this has two seriously exciting things going for it besides the obvious. Firstly, Jennifer Aniston is back as Willowdean’s mother and… man, is it good seeing her like this. Playing the role of a faded star trying to hold onto whatever sway she has left, it’d be too easy to say that Aniston is just playing the role she has been playing for years now. Instead, she works so damn well because when the script (written by her BFF Kristin Hahn, by the by) asks her to get emotional, she performs better than she has in far too long.

The other big thing of note here is the soundtrack by country music star Dolly Parton. In no uncertain terms, I fucking love this soundtrack for quite a few reasons. For one, Parton’s body of work is a major thematic device in the film proper, with Willowdean and her aunt’s shared love for her music serving as the centrepiece for some of the film’s hardest-hitting moments. For another, the songs themselves are used very nicely, feeling like a perfect fit for the scenes they’re playing in the back of.
And for a third, and this is the most important point, words cannot express how refreshing it is to hear actual country music after so long. When the airwaves have been dominated by Bro-country for so goddamn long, it is so amazing to hear music that not only sounds like actual music, but serves to empower women rather than just describe them as they would the average pick-up truck.

So, yeah, let’s close out this year’s worth of reviews on a good note: An sweet, smart and powerful film that has both its heart and its head in just the right place. Acting is great, the story is familiar but well-executed, and hot damn, that soundtrack is infectious as hell.

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