I just got home from a run.
There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. But it’s true. After my jog today, I’ve completed week four of Couch to 5k, an eight-week training program designed to make a runner out of just about anyone. Even me. Over the course of three runs per week, the program gradually increases the duration and distance of each until you find yourself at the end of 3.1 miles. I’ve never done anything like this, and definitely do not consider myself a runner by any definition. I’m not interested in weight loss (sure, it would be a bonus), and I don’t have any plans to turn into a marathoner. In fact, a big part of what’s motivating me to keep at it is nothing more than curiosity: can I do it? I wonder if I can really do it?
The titular protagonist of Brittany Runs a Marathon, the debut film written and directed by Paul Downs Colaizzo, begins her jogging journey for very different reasons, including a desire to get her chaotic life back on track. Jillian Bell (“Workaholics,” Inherent Vice) is Brittany, an almost-thirty-year-old who spends her nights partying and her days recovering from the partying. She’s not in great shape, physically or otherwise; she drinks too much, is carrying extra weight and breaks a sweat jogging around the block. After a career in advertising failed to take off, she works part-time at a theater and shares a small, messy apartment with a friend. She’s spent her life as the funny sidekick in her friend group, and her sex life is non-existent. When she goes to the doctor to scam him into a script for ritalin, all she leaves with is a wake-up call about her health and well-being. Something’s got to change.
Colaizzo was inspired to write Brittany by his close friend (also named Brittany) who similarly ignited a life change in her late twenties when she decided to get healthy. It’s a simple if predictable premise, and there are certainly moments on Brittany’s journey (the cinematic one, that is) that are a bit too convenient or oversimplified. Do we really need the regular weigh-ins, as if that portion of the journey is the only one that matters? And as if it’s really just that easy? There are complicated themes here, to be sure, as the path to creating a healthier life (and even just defining what that is) is complicated, messy and never the same from person to person. By focusing on one journey that fits the “move more, eat less” narrative of a fairly privileged white woman, there are more than a few perspectives left out (here’s a great article on one woman’s experience watching the film as a self-proclaimed “fat runner”).
Thankfully, Colaizzo manages to piece together a script with enough going for it around these potentially problematic themes that Brittany becomes someone worth cheering on. There’s her new gig as a house-sitter where she meets Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), the night-shift sitter who’s basically moved in; their unlikely friendship becomes a sweet storyline as Brittany’s emotional availability evolves alongside her health. And there’s her newfound running friends, Catherine (the always welcome Mikaela Watkins) and Seth (Micah Stock), who push her and support her every step of the way in ways her existing friends never even try. And the road to this new version of herself isn’t without its hurdles, from self doubt and slip-ups to injury and missed goals.
It’s all held beautifully together by Bell, who proves to be a talented dramatic actress after a career built on comedy (though there’s still plenty of that, as Brittany relies on that old standard of her sense of humor to mask her insecurities). That the film is written and directed by a man may come as quite a surprise to someone who sees it without realizing this, as Brittany’s journey, in Bell’s capable hands, is one any woman would recognize: who am I, really? What am I capable of? In a culture that defines me by my shape and body, where do I find my own worth and well-being?
Brittany’s come-to-Jesus moment is delivered via her brother-in-law, Demetrius (a typically charismatic Lil Rey Howery), the only person in her life willing to deliver the tough love she so desperately needs, as the improvement in her physical health presents new challenges in her interpersonal relationships. It’s a testament to that universal truth that wherever we go, there we are; shedding the pounds doesn’t defeat the demons.
Brittany Runs a Marathon certainly doesn’t get everything right about complicated topics like weight, beauty and fitness. It’s limiting by nature, retelling just one woman’s story in an admittedly formulaic way. But there’s also a lot of heart to the proceedings, with Bell’s earnest performance chief among them, and a message of self-improvement and self-care at the film’s core. It’s a feel-good story by any definition, and despite its imperfections, it’s one that anyone who’s ever set out to accomplish the impossible is sure to appreciate.
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