Dolly Parton lends her song catalog, her unmistakable presence and her infamous Dollyisms to “Dumplin,’” Netflix’s new film based on Julie Murphy’s 2015 novel of the same name. As it happens, the film’s tagline ― “Find out who you are and do it on purpose,” one of those Dollyisms ― closely mirrors the career trajectory of its star, Danielle MacDonald.
The 27-year-old Australian, who gave a stellar performance alongside Bridgett Everett in the (underrated) 2017 film “Patti Cake$,” never saw herself doing anything besides acting. Her encounters with people who questioned whether she could succeed in Hollywood ― which often rewards people with highly unrealistic body types ― fueled her ambition even more.
“I’m pretty stubborn,” she told HuffPost. “I always had kind of a blind confidence in myself, just a sense that I can’t see myself doing absolutely anything else, so there wasn’t an option to say, ‘Well, maybe they’re right.’ It was like, ‘No, this is what I want to do, so eventually it will happen.’”
In “Dumplin’,” Macdonald shines as Willowdean Dixon, the daughter of a former pageant queen (Jennifer Aniston). Willowdean signs up for her town’s pageant at first as an act of protest but (spoiler alert!) ends up turning the event into a celebration of self-love. There are overt and subtle similarities to another, far more controversial Netflix venture, “Insatiable.” Both feature a beauty pageant, and both attempt to make a cultural commentary on the way we understand and accept standards of beauty in society. But only one does it the right way.
“Dumplin’” is different from the shows and films that have tried to tackle self-acceptance before it. In the film, Willowdean is largely raised by her now deceased aunt, who we see in flashbacks depicted as beautiful, confident and vivacious. There are multiple fat women with multidimensional personalities who are not included for comic relief. As InStyle’s Amanda Richards put it so eloquently, “13-year-old me is shitting herself, and 33-year-old me feels like I can somehow 100 percent relate to all of them.”
Macdonald said she felt just how keenly Murphy “got it” as soon as she read the novel.
“When I read the book, I was like, ‘Oh, this is written by someone who has been through this themselves,’” she said. “I connected with it so clearly. When you read it, you feel like someone has kind of entered your soul a little bit and just poured your feelings out on a page.”
Watching Macdonald not only exist happily but navigate confidence and self-acceptance exactly the way just about any breathing person on earth would is refreshing ― and so real. It’s in part, she said, what makes the movie so special.
“It was able to capture so many people’s feelings of, like, ‘I know I should be confident, I’m aware of that, but sometimes I don’t,’” she explained. “It’s the struggle to find that. It’s allowing you to have those moments of self-doubt but also finding confidence, and it’s not judging you either way.”
She added that it’s the roles that put her directly in the spotlight that she has been surprised to get. As an acting student, she was taught to typecast herself to market herself to get parts ― and became content with landing the funny best friend, the girl who gets bullied or, as we have so often seen, the sidekick who helps elevate the lead character.
“The most surprising thing ― and the thing I really didn’t think I would have an opportunity to do when I was younger ― was I didn’t realize the kind of roles I would be able to play,” she said. “I thought it would be, like, two lines here, the joke. It becomes normal, that typecast of yourself, and you’re like, ‘That’s awesome. That’s great.’ You put yourself in a box because of what you’re told, and that is so messed up.”
It’s actors like Macdonald, who continue to prove that we shouldn’t be putting ourselves in boxes, who will be the catalysts for change not just for the industry but for the people who watch ― and feel seen by ― their presence onscreen.
“I didn’t see myself represented in television and film as a kid, and I think that’s why I knew it was going to be so hard,” she said. “I’m also a little pessimistic in the sense that I’m like, ‘It might take 10 years to even get one thing, so I’m going to stick it out, and it will happen eventually.’”
And happen it did. Stream “Dumplin’” on Netflix now.