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Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon

by Lynn Lee

A surprise breakout and audience favorite at Sundance earlier this year, Brittany Runs a Marathon now faces a challenge nearly as daunting as that of the title character – namely, overcoming the late summer movie doldrums and getting the attention of potential viewers who are already turning their thoughts to school, football, Oscar contenders, and other harbingers of fall.  Can this tiny indie picture with a newbie director and no big names attached become the sleeper hit it’s clearly angling to be through word of mouth and savvy social media marketing?  Having seen the movie, which I found quite charming if predictable and a bit lightweight, I’ll volunteer a cautious “maybe.”

Brittany’s chief assets are a winning star turn from Jillian Bell (most familiar to mainstream audiences as the acerbic scene-stealer of 22 Jump Street), who moves confidently from comic sidekick to funny Everywoman lead, and a narrative arc that’s just as humorous and relatable...

Who hasn’t at some point felt their lives stuck in second gear and/or strived for a goal that seemed initially impossible?  Based on the true story of a friend of writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo, Brittany starts out as the poster child for poor life choices, barely holding down a minimum-wage job in NYC and skating by on a mix of wit and sheer effrontery, even as she parties hard nightly with her toxically self-absorbed Instagram-influencer friend and roommate (Alice Lee) and lets her weight balloon to just under 200 pounds.  An appointment with a doctor who tells her in no uncertain terms she needs to lower her BMI, blood pressure, and resting heart rate finally kick-starts her into trying to get healthier in the one way that doesn’t cost money—running.  She sets her goals incrementally: first just a block, then a mile, then two, a 5K, and eventually, against all odds, the NYC Marathon.

We also gradually discover that underneath her quips Brittany’s self-medicating serious personal pain, which manifests itself in a tendency to hold at arm’s length those who love her most – such as her sister and brother-in-law (the latter played by another scene-stealer, Get Out’s Lil Rel Howery, playing it admirably straight here) – and those who try to be kind to her. Nevertheless, in trying to take control of her life she becomes unlikely friends with two fellow runners: her upstairs neighbor, Catherine (Michaela Watkins, who co-starred with Bell in this summer’s blink-and-you-missed it Sword of Trust), a photographer whose seemingly perfect life also hides her own demons, and the adorable if underwritten Seth (Micah Stock), who wants to show his kids that he’s just as strong and manly and deserving of the title “dad” as his husband.  She also strikes sparks with an extremely cute if immature wannabe-artist (Utkarsh Ambudkar) with whom she splits a rich couple’s dog-sitting duties and warily navigates a friendship that’s pretty much foreordained to get complicated.

While the supporting characters are appealing, this is Brittany’s show, and Bell really shines in the lead.  Although you may think you know where her story is going, and you’d be right, it does occasionally zag when you expect it to zig, and takes one major plot detour that drags out a little but also allows Bell to dig into the darker side of her character.  To both her and Colaizzo’s credit, she isn’t afraid to show how ugly and vicious Brittany’s self-hatred can be when she redirects it onto others, even if the script ultimately lets her off the hook and allows her the feel-good ending we’re primed to believe she deserves.

Cast and crew at Sundance earlier this year

Indeed, it’s the psychological rather than the physical aspects of Brittany’s journey that give the movie its emotional resonance.  As her brother-in-law tells her at a critical moment, running was never about losing weight for her.  We may be gratified as she sheds the 50 pounds prescribed by her doctor and comes closer and closer to her dream of running the marathon, but even as the movie goes through the motions of showing her training progression and setbacks, it doesn’t convey in a truly visceral way the intense pain, toil, and sheer grinding exhaustion that come with that level of effort and dedication.  What it does convey much more successfully is the impact the enterprise has on her own self-perception and her relationships with others.

And that, ultimately, will be the measure that determines whether Brittany finds an audience.  Will her struggles strike a chord in a way that those of, say, Booksmart and Late Night sadly did not?  That’s the million dollar question (or $14 million, to be precise, which was the astonishing sum Amazon paid for the rights at Sundance).  I think it may have a chance, if the theater packed with women that I saw the movie in was any indicator, and the slow rollout strategy may actually work better for this kind of picture than going wide too quickly.  At the same time, Brittany already feels like it was released almost too late, just as everyone’s attention is shifting to the big guns and awards contenders that are filling the fall release schedule thick and fast.

Still, if you have a couple of free hours and want a nice bright palate cleanser to help you transition from a summer of mostly underwhelming and substance-free movies to the heavier prestige fare that’s coming down the pike, you could do far worse than watch Brittany run her marathon. B

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Reader Comments (8)

I saw this at a film festival and was pleasantly surprised. I was expecting a by-the-numbers, somewhat insipid inspirational story (and as a runner, I'd be a sucker for that anyway). But the writer-director throws in just enough curveballs to make this more interesting (and entertaining) than it needs to be. It's a complex portrayal of a troubled woman (rare in itself in US cinema these days) and deserves to be a hit.

September 4, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterdtsf

I've heard really good things about this film as I do like Jillian Bell a lot as I think she's funny but also has sides to her that make her endearing. She is what Amy Schumer really wants to be but unlike Schumer, Bell has class.

September 4, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I liked but didn't quite love this - was actually far more taken with Watkins than Bell.

September 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

To my great surprise, I actually loved this film. It's one of those movies where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

September 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJ.B.

Looks like a great film.

September 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

I really enjoyed it. Brittany is very well-drawn, but I agree that some of the other characters weren't given enough to do. As a runner, I would say this is the most realistic depiction of ordinary runners. Movies always make runners seem like they are sprinting all the time yet barely breaking a sweat. Think of Tom Cruise running in any movie.

September 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

Lynn, your review is spot on. It's an enjoyable and inspirational movie, and it's great to see Jillian Bell playing the lead, but it's also a bit predictable. And the romantic subplot felt the least successful to me; unsurprisingly, as it was apparently made up for the movie.

I feel this was over-hyped out of Sundance, to its detriment. But I hope it finds an audience and Bell gets more chances to carry a movie on her own (rather than just steal it!).

September 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Thanks, Steve G. - I hope so, too!

Andrew C: Watkins was great, but the film never really felt focused on her even when it seemed to be trying to; as with the other characters, the script's way more interested in how Brittany's perception of her - and everything else - changes. We learned just enough to want to know more, which in a way is a compliment to the actress.

September 6, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLynn Lee

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