A movie about a woman who is, medically speaking, overweight and who changes both her body and her life by running is a dangerous proposition in our era. The knee-jerk Internet response is already primed and ready to go: “Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes!” But Paul Downs Colaizzo’s modest and delightful debut film Brittany Runs a Marathon never says, or even suggests, otherwise, and it makes no presumptions about any set notion of ideal weight. It is, more broadly, the story of a woman who isn’t quite sure why she doesn’t like herself—the number on the scale is only part of it—and who takes one step at a time to change that whatever-it-is. Brittany Runs a Marathon isn’t about losing weight; it’s about altering the elusive whatever-it-is, which is only the first step toward feeling better about everything.
Brittany (Jillian Bell) is a 26-year-old New Yorker in a rut. She once had an internship at an advertising firm, but now she’s barely scraping by as a ticket-taker at an off-Broadway theater. She likes partying with her friends, but waking up in a hung-over slump is getting old. And while she enjoys the company of her roommate, aspiring Instagram sensation Gretchen (Alice Lee), that friendship will come to show cracks and striations that maybe can’t be repaired. Brittany has more going for her than she knows: Improvisational jokes reel out of her with ticker-tape speed, and she has a stunning smile that somehow comes off as both soft-focus and bright at once. But no one knows quite what to make of her, and she has even less of an idea what to make of herself. She pays a visit to the doctor. “I have a hard time focusing,” she tells him as she angles for an Adderall prescription. He nixes that, but instead informs her that her body-mass index is far out of the range of what’s considered healthy, and that she’s at risk for serious problems if she doesn’t drop some weight.
Who ever wants to hear that? “I feel like you’re totally missing the point of those Dove ads,” she tells him, countering his professional assessment with the one-size-fits-all “every size is beautiful” argument. But his warning sticks. She investigates a gym membership, only to laugh at how unaffordable it is. And so, a few days later—with the help of a judgmental neighbor she doesn’t even like (Michaela Watkins’s Catherine)—she decides to go running.
Brittany’s first run is just one block long, and you feel every step of it. The camera, showing Brittany’s point of view, lingers over the last few never-ending feet; the sidewalk cracks look to be about a mile apart. But after she recovers, she feels a little better, and she runs some more. She reluctantly joins Catherine’s runners’ group and finds that it’s fun, even making a new friend there (Micah Stock’s Seth). Later, when she takes a pet-sitting job to bring in some extra dough—her goal is to run the New York City Marathon, and she needs to raise funds to do it—she meets a fellow pet-sitting type named Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an aspiring artist, or aspiring something. Jern is even more aimless than Brittany ever was, but he’s also weirdly entertaining, and the two of them, both adrift, alternately clash and cling to each other.
Brittany does lose weight, keeping track in her own way—22 pounds equals 11 MacBooks, she reasons. But it’s not so much that Brittany sought to change her life by running, or even by losing weight; it’s more that her life changed while she was busy looking the other way, and that unspoken truism is what gives Brittany Runs a Marathon its casual, vibrant energy. Colaizzo, a playwright, wrote the screenplay using one of his real-life friends as inspiration. The movie isn’t even selling running as the best exercise: There’s no glassy-eyed mention of the runner’s high, or any of those other quasi-religious running-fanatic turnoffs. Running is just the thing that gets Brittany going, and when she does, she learns to see herself differently: Her body contours are more defined, so she feels better in her clothes. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, she also realizes that most of what she has to give has nothing to do with how she looks. Her humor can either animate a room or defuse a heated moment, and she thinks so fast that she can outrun even the most hurtful insult. When Gretchen dismisses Brittany’s devotion to running as a phase—”Don’t throw away your fat clothes,” she says, in a moment of unthinkable cruelty—Brittany sees in her friend a vicious self-absorption that, earlier, she’d been too muddled to pick up on. “I’m not going to be your fat sidekick,” she says, the words flowing out of her before she even realizes how apt they are.
Bell, a veteran of the Los Angeles comedy troupe the Groundlings—she has appeared in movies like the girls-gone-wild farce Rough Night and Lynn Shelton’s indie Sword of Trust, as well as in a number of TV roles—knows her way around a wisecrack. She also plays Brittany’s transformation subtly and intelligently, without courting our pity or even our approval. There are no noisy meltdowns or hyper-dramatic revelations in Brittany Runs a Marathon; even the lines that sting have some buoyancy. Brittany has a tough outer shell—you need it in New York, and you need it just being a woman. But Bell makes that shell translucent; her character’s vulnerability shimmers through it, in a gorgeous everyday way. Brittany Runs a Marathon doesn’t offer a roadmap for defeating our own insecurities, and although Brittany does get a happily-ever-after, it’s presented as part of an endurance run. If only it were possible to achieve happiness and then freeze everything conveniently in place! But that would mean you’d stopped moving. The only way to find out what’s around the corner is to just keep going, one insurmountable block at a time.