“A quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business.” — A.A. Milne
In “Tracktown,” real-life distance runner Alexi Pappas plays aspiring Olympic athlete Plumb Marigold, who bombards us with quotations pilfered from inspirational posters, popular movies and the pages of Bartlett’s, padding the film’s gratuitous voiceover with platitudes by everyone from Mary Lou Retton to Albus Dumbledore. Plumb (whose name is meant to be as adorably one-of-a-kind as Diablo Cody or Juno MacGuff) shows undeniable skill on the track, but is severely stunted in most other respects, especially all things emotional or intellectual, taking 90 minutes to arrive at her first original thought in a film that is itself almost entirely recycled from other indies, mostly of the early-aughts Fox Searchlight variety.
Set in and named after Eugene, Ore., “Tracktown” could be a decade-later sequel to “Little Miss Sunshine,” had Olive (another one of those nauseatingly twee names) grown up to be a track star, or else an homage to Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” complete with its eccentric suburban flair and slightly spacey electronic score (by Jay Wadley). There’s even a sprinkling of Lena Dunham in there — minus the verbal spark — as Pappas offsets the vanity aspect of her feature debut (co-written and -directed with boyfriend Jeremy Teicher) by sharing her personal insecurities. Pappas isn’t shy about revealing her flat chest and freakishly gnarled feet, for example, and no self-respecting narcissist would dream of casting “SNL” star Rachel Dratch (aka “Debbie Downer”) as her on-screen mom — a choice that accentuates the Muppet-like side of Pappas’ personality over her more Audrey Hepburn-esque qualities.
So, what the film lacks in originality, it makes up for via its star’s naturally glamor-resistant sensibility, giving us an unpolished glimpse into the personal life of a professional runner. The first thing we realize is how little life Plumb actually has, as she devotes nearly every waking minute to her sport: from her raw-egg breakfast to the high-altitude tent in which she sleeps, clocking 90 to 100 miles each week. After over-exerting herself in an important Olympics-qualifying prelim race, Plumb has no choice but to follow the doctor’s orders and take a day off from running, a situation that leaves her with no idea how to spend her newfound free time.
That’s where the film really ought to get interesting, but instead, after paving the terrain with local Oregon color and the authentic details from Pappas’ own routines (which accentuate the sheer amount of pain such athletes accept to withstand), the movie switches to the manufactured quirkiness of all those eccentric indie films its creators clearly admire. Plumb finally musters the nerve to hit on Sawyer (Chase Offerle), the “bakery boy” on whom she’s silently nursed a crush for ages. Though the subplot doesn’t go quite where we might expect, there’s an almost excruciating aspect to their courtship, as Sawyer speaks to the 21-year-old Plumb the way someone might to a mentally disabled child. Meanwhile, she responds in kind, treating his sexual advances like someone who’s never been kissed, and showing more interest in the Little Tykes xylophone he keeps just inside the door of his RV.
If it weren’t for their eventual hook-up (nothing like the marathon sex scene in “The Bronze,” a movie that virtually erupts with personality by comparison), “Tracktown” would be right at home on Nickelodeon, so childlike is its approach — which evidently traces back to the dynamic between Plumb and her father (Andy Buckley of “The Office”): He also speaks almost exclusively in self-help slogans, coming across like a cross between her coach and an over-coddling kindergarten teacher. Clearly, amid all the training she has put into achieving her Olympic goals, Plumb missed out on the basics of human interaction, a shortcoming that manifests itself in scene after scene of pouty-faced, wide-eyed discomfort on her part. Most times, she has no idea what to say in any given social situation, falling back on those infernal voiceover quotations to fill the awkward silences. During the day or so we spend with her, she finally slows down long enough to live a little, building up enough life experience to reach the finish line — which in this case means coining an aphoristic nugget of her very own.