The name Dumplin', attached to Netflix's newest young adult movie, operates on a two levels.
To start, "dumplin'" is the nickname given to Willowdean (Danielle McDonald) by her mother Rosie (Jennifer Aniston). It's also an applicable metaphor for the types of self-searching that occur in Dumplin' as Willowdean peels her tough outer layer to discover a wealth of emotion inside. Dumplin' is about going for the innards.
It's that complexity that drew Kristin Hahn, the writer and producer of the movie, to the story. Hahn, who co-founded the production company Echo Films with Aniston, first read the eponymous book by Julie Murphy, in a sick day haze.
"It's like a treasure trove of love stories," Hahn told Refinery29. "So many love stories threaded together."
The film, which arrives on Netflix December 7, is a hit of feel-good straight to the veins. Murphy's book told the story of how Willowdean decided to compete in the Miss Blue Bonnet pageant, the very pageant her mother operated, just to prove a point. Hahn's script expands on that world a little, taking out the seams in certain narratives and hemming others, like a pageant queen herself. The result is a textured, glittery quilt filled with southern accents, female friendship, and a whole lot of Dolly Parton. (One of the songs just earned a Golden Globe nomination Thursday.)
Below, Hahn spoke to Refinery29 about adapting the movie, and why the stories of young women are still so fascinating.
Refinery29: Tell me how you found your way to Dumplin'. The Julie Murphy novel is obviously beloved.
Kristin Hahn: "I was sent the novel to read and I happened to be super sick at the time. I read the book in one sitting, because I couldn't move. I just fell in love with its multitude storylines. And I loved that the main character's arc is ultimately the love story of a girl falling in love with herself. I became kind of obsessed with it and started writing the script before I even got the job. Thankfully, I got hired! I was already halfway done writing the script.
Then, I sent it to Jen Aniston, just to read. It was the best phone call when she called and said, 'I really love this, and I want to play Rosie.'"
What was the hardest part about adapting the novel into a script?
"Well, the character of Willowdean is very internal. In a movie, she has to externalize those feelings. The other biggest challenge was — I think there are seven different love stories: the mother-daughter story, the friendship story, the drag queens, the fairy godmother kind of story, the love story of Dolly Parton. There were these multitude of threads that really needed to be woven together in a very organic way. And then I think the third challenge was deciding how to utilize the pageant world in the best way possible, while still honoring the journey of this character who joins the pageant world not to win. Willowdean is first in it as a protest, and then decides to stay in it really just for herself, to prove to herself that she can do it. To finish, not to win. How to build the pageant piece in the movie was interesting, because it's used very differently in the book."
What kind of romances were you looking to emulate with the Bo-Willowdean love story? Obviously, it's a little different. Bo has to convince Willowdean that he genuinely likes her.
"The romance between Bo and Willowdean gets a lot more real-estate in the book than it does in the movie. That was very intentional. One of the choices we made, or I made, in the beginning was to de-emphasize the romance because we've seen: girl meets a boy, likes a boy, kisses a boy, boy loses girl, they get back together. We've seen that a lot! It's out there. What I thought was really unique and what we hadn't seen enough of was a body positive movie about a girl who's confident, but also insecure.
One of the choices we made, or I made, in the beginning was to de-emphasize the romance because we've seen: girl meets a boy, likes a boy, kisses a boy, boy loses girl, they get back together. We've seen that a lot! It's out there.
"[Willowdean] thought she was confident until something threw her off her game — which is Bo. But he's not the point of the movie. Because the real point of the movie and the love story is, she has to accept and love herself before she can love and accept anyone else. And before she can actually be in a relationship with a boy.We never wanted to rely on it too much, because it takes away from the love story between the girls. And the mother-daughter story."
Yeah, the Ellen-Willowdean relationship more closely follows the structure of a romantic comedy. What went into writing that relationship?
"We're looking at girls who judge each other, and who judge themselves. And in judging themselves, they limited their life experience. It's just fear. They make their lives smaller by doing that. In building that friendship, I think it's like any good friendship. It's going to go through growing pains. It has to do with Willowdean's judgments, which comes to bite her in the butt, and she has to confront them. And take responsibility for them, and apologize for them. In the process, she realizes that there are other girls in the world who she's also judged who are actually really amazing, amazing girls. And she has developed a friendship with them. So, by the end, she's a more whole person who has a group of friends instead of one best friend."
You also wrote the script for an adaptation of StarGirl, the beloved Jerry Spinelli novel. What is it about young women as outsiders that's so appealing to you?
"I have a daughter who is a preteen. I experience preteen, teenage life everyday. And I'm amazed at how little it's changed since I was in high school. I'm drawn to the outsider's story. I drawn to the outsiders' story because I feel like we all feel like an outsider, one way or another. I believe in the power of storytelling and its ability to help change the narrative of our lives, if we see the right story at the right time. I love telling stories about teenagers. My hope is that some teenagers will get to see these stories and will feel a little less alone in the world because of them, and realize they're going to be okay.
"In terms of teenagers feeling less alone, I'm hoping come across like a fairy godmother type person, like the one in Dumplin'. That can be a lifesaver."
This story has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.