Drag queens performing to Dolly Parton help a girl who is plus-sized navigate a local beauty pageant in an upcoming Netflix film.
“Dumplin’,” releasing Friday on Netflix, follows Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald), a high school girl who signs up for a pageant to prove to her mom, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), that the institution is shallow. Alumnus Elliot Davis, the director of photography, said pageants are based on the faulty premise that women can be judged objectively for their external beauty. However, the movie works to further the representation of women who are plus-sized with a realistic story that can be appreciated by both men and women, he said.
“In a certain way (“Dumplin’”) classifies as women’s issues, but it’s really universal. She’s been controlled, her environment’s been defined for her and she doesn’t like it,” Davis said. “She’s breaking out.”
Throughout the movie, Willowdean is preoccupied with her mother, who expresses discomfort about her daughter’s weight, and her crush, who Willowdean cannot believe would be attracted to her. The film emphasizes empowerment and transformation, said producer Kristin Hahn, which are shown in Willowdean’s gradual realization that she cannot define herself by the ways others perceive her. Hahn said everybody deserves to be on that stage regardless of their size, and men could benefit from that message as well.
“I hope dudes see the movie so that they can experience a story about a girl who you don’t typically see represented in film right now,” Hahn said. “(I hope they) get a female perspective on what it’s like to be a girl, what it’s like to be judged for your physicality, which men and boys certainly experience too.”
Davis said men will benefit from “Dumplin’” as much as women, as personal inadequacy is a feeling many people can relate to. Watching the film will help men empathize with women and have a better understanding of their circumstances, he said.
“When women are taught to change, it’s part of a male-dominated society,” Davis said. “It’s very important to be able to elucidate this to fit everybody.”
Similarly, Willowdean’s friend, Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus), learns throughout the movie that the pageant is a perfect opportunity to prove anybody can be on that stage, said actor Taylor-Klaus. Films like “Dumplin’” are important today because of their female-driven nature, evident in women working on- and off-screen, Taylor-Klaus said.
Davis said he uses his shots to highlight the important components of certain scenes, including one in which Willowdean finally performs her talent. This is a turning point for Willowdean because she overcomes her fears of judgment. Davis lit the scene with a spotlight, separating her from the background so she can take center stage among the other characters.
Macdonald said although Willowdean is learning to escape judgment, her character has an issue with judging others. She is quick to make assumptions about the girls in the pageant she doesn’t know and acts as if everybody is against her, writing off the other contestant who is plus-sized as a possible ally. However, as Willowdean frees herself from others’ opinions, she recognizes she herself should stop judging others, Macdonald said.
The crucial aspect of the movie, Davis said, is that Willowdean participates and focuses on the parts of the pageant that are not based on false senses of beauty.
“Every scene or shot has a subtext,” Davis said. “It has an essence of what it’s really about. She was not somebody that she had confidence in. She wasn’t proud of herself. But in (one of the final scenes), that’s a culmination, she was proud of herself, in her body and her spirit.”