We open with Dolly Parton’s ‘Dumb Blonde’ blasting on the radio as a little girl sits in the back seat of the car. The wind from an open window is blowing her hair about, and she is enjoying the music and the ride. A voiceover explains that her name is Willowdean and that her Aunt Lucy (who is driving the car) helped her not only how to spell her name but also to be proud of it. The car passes a city limits sign that welcomes us to Clover City Texas. The person doing the voice over is grown up Willow, and she explains that Willow’s mom doesn’t have time to be with Willow because she is a celebrity in the town. Because of that, Willow was taught how to act by her Aunt. She tells how Aunt Lucy taught her not only how to act but also about Dolly Parton just as Willow and Aunt Lucy start singing the song. Willow is seen walking out of a donut shop with a box of treats while two boys walk by her and call her ‘a pig.’ Aunt Lucy comes out of the shop and chases off the boys. She then tells Willow ‘Pay them no mind. The world is full with people that are gonna try to tell you who you are, but that’s for you to decide.’
We cut to a house where Aunt Lucy and Willow are preparing for a ‘Dolly Party.’ The doorbell rings in walks Ellen, who is Willow’s age and Ellen’s mom. The girls, who didn’t know each other until now, are running around the house laughing as Aunt Lucy looks on approvingly. Willow takes Ellen into a room filled with pictures of Dolly Parton all lit up with Christmas lights. Ellen is amazed at the room, and the girls start dancing as the grownup Willow tells the story of how she and Ellen wrote Dolly a thank you note, and Dolly wrote back ‘The greatest friends having nothing and everything in common all at once.’
We cut to Willow (Danielle Macdonald) and Ellen (Odeya Rush) singing the ‘Dumb Blonde’ song while they drive around their small town. They pass a group of girls in matching outfits running down the sidewalk, as we overhear one of the girls talk about how they have to get ‘pageant ready.’ We learn that Aunt Lucy has recently passed away as we cut to Willow and Ellen slowly floating across a neighborhood pool, their eyes closed as they hold onto each other floats. A teenage boy cannonballs into the pool, drenching the two girls as he shouts out ‘Whale watch!’ The girls shoot the boy dirty looks and then lovingly reminisce about how Aunt Lucy would bring them to pool in the summer and buy them snow cones. Willow complains about her mom and how she is already on a diet to prepare for pageant season.
We cut to the two girls leaving the pool eating snow cones. Callie (Georgie Flores) runs up to the two girls and hugs Ellen. Apparently, Callie works with Ellen at a clothing store for teens. Ellen tells Willow that Callie is entering the pageant this year. Callie asks if she could come over and ask Willow’s mom questions about the local pageant that she runs. Willow tells Callie that it isn’t possible because Willow’s mom is never home. She is either at a pageant or at the nursing home where she is a nurse. Callie then awkwardly walks off as we see Ellen’s boyfriend Tim (Andrew Fletcher) calmly waiting for Ellen in his truck. Willow and Ellen say their goodbyes and Willow begins to drive off, they both start singing ‘Nine to Five.’
Willow is still singing the song when she pulls into a parking lot of a local hamburger restaurant. As she parks in the back and rings a bell next to the back door, we realize that Willow is working here. She keeps ringing the bell until Bo (Luke Benward) opens the door. They pleasantly great each other and Bo lets her in. We see that Bo is the cook as Willow walks onto the floor of the restaurant and asks Marcus (Tian Richards), a fellow server, why table seven is angry. Marcus says that he forgot to place their order. Willow saves the day by giving the table chocolate shakes and comps their meal. Bo and Willow make a joke about comping the meal. It is evident that Willow has a crush on Bo. Willow is about to make a decision that changes not only her outlook on life but her friends as well.
That is how the latest Netflix film starts from director Anne Fletcher, a former choreographer who directed Step Up (2006), 27 Dresses (2008) and The Guilt Trip (2012). This is a film I wanted to love because its message is heartfelt, but it never packs the emotional punch that it needs in the end, and because of that I only sort of liked it. My biggest problem with the film isn’t the acting, which is quite good, it’s the material that the actors are given. Each character is simply drawn, everything is out in the open with no complexity to them. You see each plot point coming from a mile out, and you know that everything will work out at the end. The script by Kristin Hahn and based on a YA novel by Julie Murphy is just too simple and way drawn out.
Now if you are a Dolly Parton fan, you will want to see this film. Willow idolizes Parton, continually playing her songs and even does Dolly trivia with her best friend, Ellen. Jennifer Aniston, who plays Willow’s pageant-loving mom, got Dolly to pen some new songs for the film. The film effectively uses the Dolly songs, some like ‘Dumb Blonde’ that are old (that song is from a 1967 album called ‘Hello, I’m Dolly’) and the film contains a few of her biggest hits like ‘9 to 5.’ The Dolly songs (which make up the complete soundtrack of the film) are used to set the mood and illustrate just what Willow is feeling or experiencing.
Danielle Macdonald who plays Willow and wowed everyone last year with the Indie hit Patti Cake$, is in almost every scene and she does an outstanding job as the independent young woman who decides to enter her mother’s beauty pageant even though Willow’s own mother doesn’t think is ‘pageant material.’ I especially liked Odeya Rush, who plays Willow’s best friend Ellen, a young girl who along with Willow enters the pageant and has doubts about her own self-worth. Rush plays off of Macdonald well, and this makes us feel and understand just how deep the two girls friendship is. Jennifer Aniston does a phenomenal job as Willow’s mom, Rose, a woman whose life is all about pageants and not about her daughter. There is a wonderful scene near the end of the film when Aniston’s Rose, a former pageant winner, realizes that her daughter has not only talent but also the confidence to be a great person, not just a pageant participant.
At an hour and fifty minutes, the movie is just too long, and once the pageant starts, it really drags along. I hated that we see almost all of the talent portion of the pageant that Willow and her three friends each perform. I like Willow’s performance (it’s quite impressive, and yes, she incorporates a Dolly song) but I didn’t need to see the whole performances of the others.
Overall, I liked this film, but I just wanted characters that were multi-faceted, not ones that had every emotion and motive out in the open. For Dolly lovers and people that enjoy the spectacle of pageants, this film is for you. For the rest of us, you might be a little bored at times. I had high hopes for this film, but I was let down by a script that just didn’t pack that emotional punch.
My Rating: Bargain Matinee
Mike’s movie rating system from best to worst:
1). I Would Pay to See it Again
2). Full Price
3). Bargain Matinee
5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again