If you’re a Dolly Parton fan, it’s part of her sneaky charm that the true bodaciousness in this figure of flashy, ogled glitz was always her singing/songwriting gifts, among the richest ever heard in American popular music.
It’s no great leap, then, to imagine Parton’s tuneful, homespun repertoire deployed as baked-in inspiration and onscreen motivation for a group of young women of varying outsider status defying convention via their small Texas town’s beauty pageant. And “Dumplin’,” Anne Fletcher’s film of Julie Murphy’s novel, certainly endeavors to channel the artist’s decades-strong empowerment wisdom to make its Dolly-loving protagonist — big-hearted Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald) — a new kind of female hero for the esteem-challenged everywhere.
But for all the ways “Dumplin’ ” does its best to avoid some clichés (no mean-girl antagonists) while embracing others (drag queens as coaches), it’s still a regrettably undercooked meal, even with those songs and the breezy magnetism of “Patti Cakes” star Macdonald. To hear snippets of Parton’s catalog — the fire of “Dumb Blonde,” the stomp in “Two Doors Down,” and the ache in the new song “Girl in the Movies” — is to wish this often too-low-key movie were as tight, tart and imaginatively expressive as one of the singer’s three-minute gems.
The notes are all there, however, in the sly story line. Willowdean, an outgoing high school feminist with confidence issues, hates being called Dumplin’ by her former beauty queen mom, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), because it feels like a judgment, not an endearment. Mourning the recent loss of her cherished Aunt Lucy, with whom she shared a plus-sizes-against-the-world camaraderie and a love of the “9 to 5” singer, Willowdean decides to honor Lucy’s legacy (and needle her image-conscious mom) by entering the local Miss Bluebonnet pageant as a protest against beauty standards for women.
The conflict is entirely inside her, though — when her bestie and partner in disruption Ellen (Odeya Rush) is energized by the process, and a skinny blonde frontrunner (Dove Cameron) shows encouragement, Willowdean is pushed to face her own insecurities, which include accepting that a cute boy (Luke Benward) likes her. There’s also an ebullient, overweight Christian girl (Maddie Baillio) who is secretly defying her strict mom by competing, and a militant metalhead (Bex Taylor-Klaus) the movie doesn’t entirely know what to do with apart from having her denounce the patriarchy at the talent tryout. “Dumplin’ ” is much more comfortable when a flamboyant Harold Perrineau and “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” star Ginger Minj show up for inner-Dolly advice and performance tips.
A movie infatuated with Dolly Parton is an understandable thing, but sometimes it seems half of Kristin Hahn’s screenplay consists of people quoting Dollyisms (“Find who you are and do it on purpose”) and well-known lyrics (“My mistakes are no worse than yours, just because I’m a woman”). And as enjoyable as hearing the songs are, there’s no real artistry to how they’re showcased. One attempt to transmute the peppy swoon of “Here You Come Again” into a missing-you lament for Willowdean’s Aunt Lucy just feels awkward more than emotional.
Thankfully, Macdonald is wonderful, whether showing grit or grace — she’s completely in charge of the light in her eyes, and it helps overcome the movie’s meandering energy. Aniston’s role, meanwhile, isn’t as meaty as it should be, but she helps sell the movie’s wishful notion that there’s a beauty pageant out there that would know how to respectfully handle, and incorporate, a quartet of politically minded interlopers.
So, sure, “Dumplin’ ” is muddled uplift, but with some encouraging new wrinkles. Which is why, oddly enough, the movie is best represented by Parton’s heart-rending single for it, “Girl in the Movies,” in which the narrator’s dream of stardom isn’t about fame or romance but just the opportunity to play the lead in one’s own life (“acting out her story / standing in her glory”). It’s a softly strummed wish for agency that’s both as powerful as a protest, and as poignant as a prayer. Pure Dolly, in other words. You know what to do, Oscar pageant judges.
Rated: PG-13, for brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 7, iPic Westwood; also on Netflix