Most romantic comedies only want us to see the good in their characters: their perfect bodies, their amazing jobs, their thrilling first dates, etc. Hollywood has long been afraid of giving the genre a character of real substance because they’re afraid the audience will refuse to sympathize with somebody who has flaws and aches and doubts that are similar to their own. Brittany (played by Jillian Bell) feels like the first of her kind. Director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s “Brittany Runs a Marathon” doesn’t run away from anything, tackling a subject matter that is both dark and sad but still ending up in a tender, rewarding place.
Brittany is in an emotional rut. She drinks herself sick at nightclubs with friends who belittle her (among them her roommate, played by Alice Lee) and constantly gets propositioned by creeps who think she will put out easier because of her looks. She doesn’t take great care of herself and seems blissfully unaware of this, but after a doctor warns her that her habits are putting her liver at risk, she decides to take up running. After a shaky start, she begins to love the routine and ambitiously decides that not only will she lose 50 pounds, but she will also run in the New York City Marathon.
The way first time director Colaizzo (who also wrote the film) and star Jillian Bell depict Brittany’s growing displeasure with herself is striking and moving. The film allows Brittany space to realize for herself what needs to change, and while her scenes are mostly handled with humor (this is actually a very funny film), it is never at the expense of her dignity.
A lesser film would have shred the pounds away from Brittany in a quick montage, but “Brittany Runs a Marathon” isn’t about physical transformation: it’s about growth. The great success of the screenplay is how it communicates to the audience that Brittany’s biggest issues are self-loathing and negativity, not her weight. The audience quickly realizes that this isn’t a film about watching a character get in-shape (if it was, it would be no better than a shoe commercial), but about watching somebody learn to respect who they are.
The supporting cast is terrific. Her brother-in-law, Lil Rey Howery (you probably know him as the hilarious TSA Agent from “Get Out”), has some of the film’s best lines. He also shares the most emotionally moving scene of the film with Brittany, explaining to her the line between self-care and self-harm. Alice Lee as Brittany’s Instagram-influencer roommate is biting and utterly convincing as a seemingly perfect yet toxically unsupportive friend. As her running mate, Michaela Watkins is painfully uplifting as a recovering heroin addict trying to keep her life from falling apart.
Holding the film back from true originality is the budding relationship between Brittany and a couch-surfer named Jern. While it ultimately goes in a nice direction, the multiple scenes of “Will they, won’t they?” slow the pace. “Brittany Runs a Marathon”, as odd as this may sound, is better as a love story between the main character and herself. Brittany’s highs and lows during her personal journey leave a much stronger impression than the throwaway subplot.
The cinematography is decent, but not quite committed. When DP Seamus Tierney keeps close to Brittany’s perspective, the personality of the film shines; seeing her try to free-run on congested New York City sidewalks is the sort of cringy-relatable imagery that will spark the sympathy of any introvert. But the final act of the film gives way to predictable, unimaginative shots of stock-footage cheering crowds and a strange visual illustration of Brittany’s progress in the marathon (instead of, you know, actually watching her run it).
“Brittany Runs a Marathon” is a film worth supporting because the core of it feels so welcomely unfamiliar. It brings real emotions out of actors who look like real people, and while I shouldn’t lead you to believe that this is some dark drama, it doesn’t waver from showing what it’s like—and how it must feel—to fall down and not want to get back up. What’s enjoyable and touching about the film rises above its predictable nature, and while it doesn’t quite warrant a run-out-and-go-see-it ovation, a fast-walk is in order.