Raised on a steady diet of Mattel merchandise, teen spirit movies, and Young Adult novels, I have long needed to make sharp differentiations for myself between fantasy and reality. To reconcile with your estranged mother, couple up with a cute boy, and have a tight-knit friend circle all at once, is fantasy. For a beauty contest to become a cure-all to your body image issues is unrealistic. Floating, beautiful, before a rapturous crowd—wishful thinking.
Dumplin’ is all of these things. It initially appears to retrace the old cliches of coming-of-age movies: a girl strikes out to do something bold (in this case, joining a pageant and defying all expectations), overcomes the various obstacles of her situation, and eventually succeeds. In this specific rendering, Willowdean Dickson decides to join a beauty pageant in honor of her deceased aunt. In the process, she becomes reconciled to her mother, whose obsession with beauty pageants has always distanced her from her daughter. Dumplin’ articulates an old formula—and there is nothing wrong with that. Dumplin’ innovates by expanding an old fairytale beyond the realm of the pretty, thin, white girl. It is encouraging that our filmic fantasies can now bear the faces of different kinds of girls—fat girls, edgy girls. Besides, I have always found pure joy in four-minute transformation montages, wardrobe changes, confidence-boosting pep talks. Most of all, in all this, there is the heady promise of blossoming, as if by magic, into sudden beauty and corresponding success. It is a powerful promise: that you are transformed, and the world can be transformed, too, so that it is no longer indifferent to your worth.
Dumplin’, in tracing the well-loved contours of an old story, helps us navigate questions of self-esteem and endearingly explores the gap between an individual’s self-regard and the world’s estimation of that individual. While the film does consider how overweight people figure (or don’t figure) in the ways that we valorise beauty, about the ridiculously exacting standards of feminine worth, this discussion never takes center stage. Dumplin’ acknowledges how Willowdean is already fully and resolutely herself. While there are undoubtedly prejudices and insults thrown her way, Willowdean is never just a victim: from her opening speech about Dolly Parton, to her languid afternoons spent at the neighborhood pool, she is always defined beyond her weight and beyond the insecurities surrounding her body.
The greatest strength of Dumplin’ is that its politics never overwhelm its story:the distinct, unique life of Willowdean. It focuses on the relationships and routines that make up her everyday life. The scenes that have stayed with me are the ones where Willowdean moves through her house: her bedroom is the locus of all her thought processes. Slumped over her bed, Willowdean makes sense of her small world: analyzing a gift that her crush has presented to her, resolving to enter the beauty pageant, deciding to rope in the outsiders who will join her in her campaign. Everything in her house draws us back to the fundamental units of her life: family, selfhood, personality. She lingers in the doorway of her mother’s bedroom, unwilling to move closer, while her mother, half inclined towards the mirror, adds the final touches to her coiffeur. Willowdean moves gingerly and tenderly through her deceased aunt’s old bedroom, taking in the trace memories of an aunt dearly beloved. The moments of quiet drama, perhaps precisely because they are so ordinary, are immensely compelling. While Willowdean’s decision to enter the beauty pageant is dramatic, most of the movie is about the drama of the everyday, about her relationships—with her pageant-obsessed mother and with a best friend who is traditionally beautiful but equally uncomfortable with the pageant cycle. The beauty contest, really, only provides a setup for the conversations and reconciliations with the various people in her life. Even with its glitzy final sequence, the pageant is never in the foreground. The heart of the film is articulated in its final moments. Willowdean, responding to her crush’s confession, laughs that she did not win. “I got disqualified,” she coos, laughing as she leans in, distracted with happiness and confident in her relationships—returning in beautiful, glittering dress to the everyday joys and normalcy of being.