“Dumplin'” celebrates Dolly Parton; size acceptance

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“Dumplin'” is the 2018 movie based on the Young Adult novel of the same name by Julie Murphy. The movie follows Willowdean “Dumplin'” Dickson as she follows through on the bright idea of entering the biggest beauty pageant in her small Texas town. The problem, well, one of them, is that her mother (played by Jennifer Aniston) is in charge of the pageant. She is also the one who gave Willowdean her unfortunate nickname. At first Willowdean’s mother resists her daughter’s participation, given her pageant-averse body. But as people will likely guess, in a movie such as this, the bad guy (even when the guy is a mom and a beauty pageant winner) learns a lesson about the person they have hurt for some length of time.

What stands out more than the size acceptance and possible easy answers, is the predominance of Dolly Parton on the soundtrack. Willowdean is an ardent fan. She developed her taste for Parton’s music when she was a child. She would listen with her now-late aunt who died presumably from a weight-related cause. The two would have “Parton Parties.” And, during the time of the story’s main action, Willowdean is old enough to drive, and she seems to only listen to Parton.

What happens for viewers is that they are treated to some of the best in Parton’s catalog. At least for casual or non-fans. The songs that the singer is best known for are given new lives when sung and lip synced by teenagers looking for acceptance. The main character is also fond of quoting song facts about Parton’s work. The obsessive fan approach does help to make Willowdean a real character. Her realness, and that of other characters, help the movie to feel somewhat authentic.

And, “real” here does not refer to size. All of the characters seem real, regardless of dress size. Even Aniston as Rosie Dickson has a backstory that might surprise people – – she used to be overweight. It isn’t revealed as some shameful secret, and the fact seems to not impress her overweight daughter at all, when it is brought up (again) in one of their many arguments. The mother’s former weight problem is told in dialogue, which makes it feel true or authentic. In short, the story has heart, but the soundtrack helps to make it.

The sound of Dolly Parton in “Dumplin'”

For audiences who have the ability to see (sort of) where the story is going, it is easy to concentrate on the movie’s soundtrack.

And when a person concentrates on the soundtrack, she is reminded that there is a reason generations of singers have tried to emulate the singer.

Take for example the song “Jolene.” The song is from Parton’s 1974 album of the same name. The lyrics in part detail the physical attributes of a strikingly beautiful woman who has the power to take the narrator’s man. The other woman’s name is “Jolene,” and it is repeated as the narrator beseeches her not to take her man “just because you can.”

The song lays bare emotions and uses the title name as almost a meditation. In the movie “Dumplin,'” the song is used at different times. One of the most interesting moments occurs when a drag queen does a vogue routine to it, and audiences are treated to the dance music remix of the song, which works better than it might sound.

The instrumentation in “Jolene” is driving, but sparse. The song highlights the range and flexibility of Parton’s voice.

Another song that is used in an interesting scene is “9 to 5.” The tune is used when Willowdean and Ellie show how connected they really are.

While both the book and the movie probably end differently than some people expect, there are lessons to be learned from it, some that feel better to acknowledge than others. It does not shy away from some of the hard truths that might be likely ignored in similar movies. Still, for some people the takeaway from the movie will be that Parton has a catalogue of interesting songs that deserve a second listen.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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