If you would've told me that a movie about a beauty pageant would end up being one of 2018's most empowering movies, I probably would've had a good laugh. Women prancing around on stage in bathing suits, getting scored for their appearance? Thanks, but no thanks. Fortunately my ideas about the entire process were completely flipped by Dumplin', a dazzling comedy-drama with a Dolly Parton-themed soundtrack so good I could cry. (Full disclosure: I did cry multiple times while watching. No shame.)
The adaptation of Julie Murphy's New York Times bestselling YA novel was brought to the screen by writer Kristin Hahn, which led to her longtime friend Jennifer Aniston joining the film, and soon everything else — including singer-songwriter and all-around queen Dolly Parton's involvement — fell into place. The film stars Australian actress Danielle Macdonald as Willowdean Dickson, a "self-proclaimed fat girl" who's dubbed "Dumplin'" by her former-beauty-queen mom (Aniston). Willowdean's assurance in herself is brought crashing down by a sweet romance with her handsome coworker, Bo, so she decides to regain her confidence by entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant run by her mother.
I recently hopped on the phone with Hahn to discuss everything from the unexpectedly empowering message of beauty pageants, the special meaning behind Aniston's character, and the magic of Dolly Parton. (Once you finish reading, hop over to Netflix and start streaming Dumplin' ASAP — you'll thank me later.)
POPSUGAR: First we need to discuss the Dolly aspect of the movie, because of that exciting Golden Globe nomination for best original song. Congratulations!
Kristin Hahn: Thank you! What would you like to know?
PS: Well, I loved how Dolly is basically a character in the film, even though she never appears onscreen, thanks to her music. Can you tell me a little bit about how she got involved, and the genesis of that whole process?
KH: I adapted the book, and then we had a script we were feeling pretty good about, and then Jen Aniston signed on to play Rosie. That was when we hit the moment where we all looked at each other and said, "We can't make this movie without Dolly Parton's blessing." She ended up being, essentially, a fairy godmother to the movie. It was an independent film, so we didn't have a very big music budget, but we had dreams of having wall-to-wall Dolly music in the movie. Our aspirational thinking was only going to get us so far in terms of being able to afford this classic, iconic music. So, we approached Dolly through her manager, Danny Nozell, and thankfully he's an angel. He took the time to read the script, walked it into her house, and said, "I think you need to look at this." And she looked at the title, and then walked over to her bookshelf and took a copy of Dumplin' off her shelf, and said "I already know all about this!"
"Don't wait to be invited to the party — invite yourself."
She has this incredible work ethic. Typically when you give someone a script, it takes months to hear a response, but it was, I don't know, a day or two and we got a call back that she'd read it and she was ready to sign on. She really responded to the message of the movie, about women defining the meaning of beauty for themselves, and giving themselves permission. Kind of like, "Don't wait to be invited to the party — invite yourself." The love story of a girl who falls in love with herself. All of these things really resonated with Dolly and spoke to her own personal musical legacy. A lot of what she's written about through the decades has been about loving who you are, the way you are, and accepting others for who they are.
PS: Completely, the two go hand in hand.
KH: Yeah, and thankfully Dolly Parton is a brilliant businesswoman. She asked us, "What do you need?" and we told her we'd love access to her catalogue, and luckily she owns most of her music. She was able to say, "Yes, I will give you access to my catalogue," and then also asked, "Do y'all want a theme song?" And of course we were like, "Uhhh, yes! Please!" [Laughter] The next thing we knew, she got inspired and had written six new songs. It was such an unexpected gift. We started talking about how it would be great to do duets, like the classics with new, contemporary artists like Sia or Miranda Lambert. Everyone thought they turned out beautiful, so we just slowly and very organically built this really beautiful, stunning soundtrack.
PS: The only thing I love more than the amount of Dolly in the movie is Willowdean, because no matter how you look, how much you weigh, what level of self-confidence you have, you can still see yourself in her universal story of self-acceptance. What was the most exciting part of bringing her to life onscreen for you?
KH: It's exciting to be able to tell a story that is a part of the body positive conversation that's evolving right now. There's so much consciousness around building and expanding the definition of beauty and femininity. It was exciting to be a part of that, not only with the character of Willowdean but also with the other characters in the film. To tell a story that is also about getting past our own judgments, which we all have. Our own, sort of superficial judgments of people, ourselves included. We need to connect with people to see who they really are. That's the journey Willowdean goes on with her mother, and vice versa. It's the journey the girls — the "revolutionaries," we call them — go on together. I liked the fact that Willowdean wasn't this idealized, confident big girl. She, too, had her own judgments. She was comparing herself to the other plus-size teenager in her high school, kind of like, "Well, at least I'm not that big." That's real. That's real. But when we do it, it keeps us from having a bigger life and better friendships. It limits our experiences in life.
PS: What you say about Willowdean not being idealized is interesting to me, because body image can be a tricky subject to address, in that not everyone is going to be 100 percent happy with the message of confidence all the time. Did you have that in mind while writing and approaching these themes in the film?
KH: Oh, yeah. Yes. You're absolutely right. It is a tricky subject, and everyone has their different experience. The beauty of stories and storytelling is there are one thousand ways, if not more than one thousand ways, to tell anyone one story, about any one character, or any one theme. We told our best version of this story. This is an incredibly collaborative process — there's an author, who wrote the beautiful book; then there's the screenwriter; then there are producers who have, you know, put their ingredients in it; there's the director who puts so much into it, and shapes it; and there there are the actors, who embody these characters and take them on for themselves. It's a living, organic creation. It really takes on a life of its own. The sum of its parts are so much more powerful than any one of us. It's an amalgamation of a lot of creative people telling the story of Willowdean at this moment in time.
There are certainly the stories that have come before us, about body positivity. So we're a part of the conversation. We're a piece of the mosaic, in my mind. When I wrote it, I tried not to get too heady about, like, "Oh god, we've got to get this right for 100 percent of the people who are gonna see it." There's no way to do that. There's just no way. But I hope that the themes in this film, and the intentions we all had in making it, resonate with enough girls to give them confidence to go out and maybe go after a dream, or verbalize a dream that they've kept quiet. If we can do that for half the girls who see it, then I'm happy.
Screenwriter Kristin Hahn on the set of Dumplin'.
PS: I know you and Jennifer Aniston are close in real life and have worked together a bunch, but was she who you always envisioned as taking on Rosie?
"It was such a beautiful experience to make a movie about female friendship with one of your best friends. It's a dream come true."
KH: I honestly didn't write it with anyone in mind, except I will say this: there's Rosie, the mother character in the book, and I was raised by a single mom, so it related a lot to that relationship. There definitely are pieces of Jen's mom in the character, too, because we've been very close for many decades. So it's kind of an interesting homage to both of our moms, and to the mother in the book. I actually gave the script to Jen to read just as a friend, as a trusted collaborator, to see if she had any notes. You know, I had a secret dream that she might spark to Rosie, but I definitely didn't assume it, because she's not the star of the movie. It's a very generous thing when someone of Jennifer's caliber as an actor makes the choice to be a supporting character for another actor's movie. It's a very generous thing to do, ultimately. I never assumed she'd say yes, but it was exciting! I was thrilled when she called and said, "I read it and I wanna play Rosie." It was such a beautiful experience to make a movie about female friendship with one of your best friends. It's a dream come true.
PS: Yeah, the female friendships in this movie are really lovely. I actually ended up picking up the novel after I watched the movie a few days ago because I fell in love with it, and it was almost surprising to see how much more Julie Murphy's story focuses on the love story between Willowdean and Bo, whereas the movie hinges around the platonic love between the female characters and their friendships. Was that something you purposefully chose to do, or was it just a matter of not being able to fit everything in?
KH: It was purposeful, because for me . . . it's a YA movie that lives in a certain kind of space, let's say. But what I was excited about was telling a story that was more female-centric. To me, the exciting part of this story is that it's a love story about a teenage girl falling in love with herself, and from that comes all these other relationships, including Bo. I really wanted the point of view of the movie to be very much about Willowdean and her internal journey that gets externalized through these relationships. Her relationship with her mother, the relationship with her best friend, because they go through their own growth spurts. A relationship with girls who she judges, who she has to learn to rely on, and ultimately realises they're the best friends you could ever want. And a relationship with an unexpected fairy godmother [in Harold Perrineau's Lee, a drag queen]. It's kind of like a yellow-brick-road-esque journey, that through all these different relationships and influences, she comes to realise that she ultimately has to give herself permission to stand on the stage and be seen.
I love that Willowdean doesn't join the pageant in order to win, she just does the pageant to finish it for herself. Not for other people. Not for the scores. She does it on her own terms, and it's such a story of empowerment in that way, that I wanted it to stay focussed on that. The boy, well I kind of like that the love story between Willow and Bo is kind of like a coda. Like, "yeah, she might choose to be with this boy now." Because now that she loves herself, she can make really good choices for herself. That's what I want people to walk away with.
PS: Now, for being such a feminist, empowering story, the movie centres around a beauty pageant, an event that has long been criticized for reinforcing patriarchal standards for women. By the end of writing the script, I'm wondering if you found your opinions about pageants had changed. Whether you went from being anti-pageant to pro
KH: Well, thank you for understanding and getting all that, first of all. That question makes me so happy, because that is it, you know? It's a feminist, empowering-type message wrapped inside a pageant movie. A movie that's music-driven, and features drag queens, and is hopefully just fun, but it does have this deeper point and resonance to it that hopefully girls pick up. I definitely had judgments about pageants when I first started. I had to do my own research, but what was kind of great about having judgments about it, is I had to go through my own process of discovery just like Willowdean does in the movie. Being on the outside of the pageant world, and not understanding it, definitely eye-rolling and being like, "Why would you put yourself through that?" I had to go through my own humbling process of meeting teenage pageant contestants and winners who were really willing to talk to me and break it all down for me.
While a few of those judgments I had are true, in some instances, I happened to meet some girls who do pageants for some pretty profound reasons that I hadn't considered. That changed the way I looked at it, because my hope as I was writing the movie is that I wanted it to be a rite of passage. I wanted it to be authentic, that I wasn't just making up a movie reality. These girls described their experience as a choice, as self-empowerment, and as a rite of passage that they chose for themselves. It wasn't about dressing up in a pretty dress and getting scored, so much as the experience. The ultimate goal is to support their college education, because the prize money you win goes to tuition. For a lot of these girls, it was really important that they do them so they could go to college. That was their motive. In the process, these thoughtful women got to learn how to use their voice.
PS: I feel like Millie's character is a great embodiment of that notion. I know my opinions about pageants were certainly different by the end of watching, when I was full-on crying happy tears.
KH: Yeah! I mean, look. When Rosie says in the movie, "Pageants are harder than you think," it's true. They're harder than I thought. Or should I say, they can be. Not that they are, but that they can be more substantive, empowering for girls than I assumed as an outsider. I hope girls can watch this movie, who are already doing pageants or moms like Rosie who are running pageants in small towns, and say, "Oh, this movie actually approaches it in a different way." In everything in life, it's all about your intention. If you come at a pageant like, "I'm gonna do this for me," it can be really self-esteem building. If you do it for other people, the attention and scores, and approval of other people, we all know that doesn't actually build self-esteem. Dumplin' is a different way of looking at that world.