There have been some mighty big deals at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but there may be no entry there this year that seems more of a slam-dunk for a major breakout than “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” This terrifically engaging debut feature by playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo is the best kind of “crowdpleaser”: one that earns every emotional beat that might seem formulaic in four out of five similar enterprises.
Drawn from the actual experiences of the writer-director’s best friend, also named Brittany, the inspirational story of an overweight New York woman’s long hard road to improvement — not just figure- or health-wise, but also in how she views herself and other people — is sure to become a favorite for those facing similar issues, or indeed anyone who needs a dose of motivational encouragement. It’s also a whip-smart comedy with some real emotional depth that could click with general audiences if given the chance. While the lack of marquee stars means that kind of access won’t come automatically, prospects are bright indeed, and the film should provide a career boost for all significant participants.
Brittany (Jillian Bell) is a 28-year-old Manhattanite who seems to be living the post-collegiate dream of having maximum fun in the big city. She goofs around at a requisite barely-bill-paying, front-of-the-house job at an Off Broadway theater, then parties nearly every night with flatmate Gretchen (Alice Lee), a wannabe Instagram star. But in truth, all this is starting to feel rudderless and old. A visit to a doctor tells Brittany much more than she wanted to know: He says her stats (particularly blood pressure) are all wrong for her age, and that she needs to make some serious lifestyle changes — including dropping up to 55 pounds.
Gym membership proves more than her budget can handle, so she figures she’ll go the cheap “all the world is a gym” route. But jogging even one city block seems a Herculean task her first time out, as well as a humiliating one. Nonetheless, she plods on, very reluctantly accepting encouragement from a disliked, super-thin fellow tenant (Michaela Watkins), and gaining a new friend from another running-group newbie (Micah Stock) who hates exercise almost as much as she does.
The three commit to running a 5K, then start casting their eye toward the seemingly impossible dream of the 26-mile New York City Marathon. This requires real training — i.e. a gym — so broke Brittany finds additional employment housesitting for absent pet owners. Her first gig is in a splendid manse whose nighttime dog walker is a guy her age named Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who’s such a slacker that he’s illicitly moved into the place as a free crashpad.
Dedication does equal results: The pounds begin to fall off, and Brittany begins gaining confidence in different ways, some for the first time. She even braves the dating pool, sorta, before discovering that mutual dislike between herself and Jern has turned into something else. She also realizes that some apparent pluses in her life were actually minuses — notably Gretchen, who turns out to be less a “friend” than a narcissist who wanted a “fat sidekick” to feel “better than.”
But perhaps our heroine’s biggest enemy is her own penchant for self-sabotage, which we eventually learn runs very deep indeed. She can only take so much unfamiliar positive reinforcement without masochistically fleeing, or lashing out. Setbacks that others might take in stride instantly re-affirm all old insecurities. Colaizzo lets her hit bottom with a truly ugly scene in which a drunken Brittany aims all revived self-loathing at a stranger more overweight than she ever was, to the horror of her sister (Kate Arrington) and beloved brother-in-law (Lil Rey Howery).
These very deftly written and directed elements make for something much more than the stock feel-good underdog tale this material might easily have become. As our protagonist does get her act together — including, yes, a climax at the real-life NYC Marathon — the impact is genuinely moving.
The cast is heavy on comedy-identified talent, including several improv and stand-up types relatively new to the screen. Familiar faces Bell and Watkins are excellent in roles that, while quite differently scaled, both reveal more serious layers as the story proceeds. Amudkar, Howery, and Stock are inspired in consistently funnier but also nuanced parts, while even unsympathetic Gretchen is allowed a little pathos in Lee’s turn.
Though at first it seems to have a standard bright comedy look, the film’s design elements prove astute in all departments, and Casey Brooks’ editing has considerable brio.