There’s a blurry distinction between the concepts of self-improvement and self-centeredness and it often requires a seismic effort on my behalf to parse through the nonsense, to read past the banal platitudes of what I’ve come to understand to be a uniquely American problem. Writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon isn’t especially provocative or probing in its examination of this, but I do think it possesses some notable virtues worth unpacking. While it may initially suggest all the rote tendencies one associates with American indies that emerge from the Sundance Film Festival, its more anomalous qualities inspire thought and consideration that I would’ve expected walking into the film.
For Brittany (Jillian Bell), the concerns of the day tend to assemble themselves into a kind of Venn diagram of anxieties. She’s up to her tits in debt, unhealthy, and alone. Her closest friend/roommate is self-absorbed and indifferent to any of Brittany’s pleas for help. Settling to see her physician, he inquires if she’s making healthy lifestyle choices, which, accompanied by a swell of the film’s score and Bell’s glazed-over expression, is meant to suggest something more profound than our M.D’s concern over Brittany’s BMI. And so she begins to run. Adopting the elements of your prototypical sports films, Colaizzo sets the film up as a series of setbacks accompanied by minute successes. The unexpected panic of Brittany confronting her fears sharpens her resolve, as she forms a closer bond with fellow runner Seth (Micah Scott) and a reluctant friendship with her neighbor, fellow runner Catherine (Michaela Watkins, who also worked with Bell in the Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust). Brittany’s losing weight and gaining confidence, so much so that she’s committed to running the New York marathon – with Catherine and Seth joining her at the finish line.
The film is at its most persuasive during this initial transition phase for Brittany. The suggestion being that starting a new life, particularly as an American, can sometimes be dumbed down to such a degree that changes in one’s lifestyle – diet, exercise, etc – is all that’s required. But what Colaizzo captures is something a bit more precise, something about our internal self-destructive tendencies that find us isolated, demanding to do things on our own without the help of positive influences around us. I know, to a positively embarrassing degree, how difficult it is to step away from that mode of thinking. It’s the kind of thing that I need to work at, daily, to overcome.
And just at the moment where you expect Brittany Runs a Marathon to turn into another blasé, American, feel-good narrative about how weight-loss and self-confidence is all that you need to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, it recalibrates, suggesting that growth takes real, tangible work; that there’s only so much you can expect from a person and some change requires you to go back to the drawing board to get at something more profound (the fact that Brittany uncovers this fact when she’s at her most made-up is no subtle coincidence).
This is Colaizzo’s first film and it’s a bit annoying how cloying and reserved it can be at times. He teeters onto something pretty sophisticated but just never pushes the boundaries too far into discomfort. But he’s a formidable writer, particularly in his ability to capture witty repartees smoothly and convincingly. And he’s assembled a cadre of noteworthy performers to realize this vision. Bell is exceedingly good here, as she was in Sword of Trust, whereupon any preconceived notions you have of the actress (Workaholics) are ruled out immediately. She inspires something greater in the material, which as rote and familiar as it may be, can be enough. And for a film about the need to accept oneself as simply enough, that’s really all I could ask from the film.