Brittany Runs a Marathon is a charming and thoughtfully written dramedy with a wealth of depth and heart that closes out the proper summer movie season on a strong note. A deceptively simple story of self-improvement and learning to love one’s flaws, Brittany Runs a Marathon is the type of indie production that could be operating and half of its potential and still manage to be fairly entertaining. Fortunately, writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo and star Jillian Bell – who finally gets the star vehicle she has richly deserved for years now – are willing to put in the work and go the extra mile to create a crowd pleaser that will likely stick with viewers rather than fading from memory once the credits roll and the laughs have stopped.
Brittany (Bell) is a 29-year old New Yorker who’s liked, but not really loved, both by others and by herself. She’s a bit of a jokester; the friend everyone keeps around because she makes them laugh almost effortlessly. She holds down a menial job as an usher at an off-off-Broadway theatre, loves to party a bit too hard and regularly, has trouble focusing, doesn’t have any love life to speak of, and by her own admission, is somewhat lazy and unambitious. She has also been diagnosed by her doctor (Patch Darragh) as being 45 pounds overweight. The news devastates Brittany, but she quickly realizes that her life has been less than ideal for quite some time now, and a change would do her good. Not having the money to get a gym membership, Brittany takes up running. She makes unlikely friends and running buddies in Seth (Micha Stock), a gay father who doesn’t want to embarrass his kid, and Catherine (Michaela Watkins), a nosy neighbour and photographer who doesn’t have the sort of idyllic life that Brittany assumed she leads. The three unlikely friends make a pact to enter into the famed New York Marathon in the fall, not to win the race or set personal bests, but rather for the satisfaction of saying they finished it. For Brittany, who needs to work harder than she ever has just to get a spot at the starting line, it will be a life changing challenge that will be more eye opening than her ongoing weight loss.
Brittany Runs a Marathon is the type of movie that wins viewers over because it gives plenty of reasons to love its main character unconditionally, without glossing over any of their obvious faults, flaws, or less desirable traits. In his debut feature, Colaizzo builds his rather easy to understand and empathetic story around complicated people; all of whom are trying to keep their insecurities and true selves hidden from the world. Brittany tries to make people like her and disarm them with a laugh, but it’s also an obvious defense mechanism designed to keep them at arms length, never believing that anyone could show her unconditional love or friendship. Catherine puts forward a veneer of refinement, respectability, and charity, but her life turns out to be a bigger mess than Brittany’s in a lot of ways. Brittany’s insufferable influencer roommate (Alice Lee) has built her lifestyle around looking as successful as possible in public, and she’s starting to dangerously believe her own bullshit. Brittany’s sister (Kate Arrington) has a perfect life and family and is married to a lovely guy (Lil Rel Howery) who acts as a surrogate father figure of sorts. When Brittany needs to make some extra cash and step away from the toxic relationship she has with her roommate, she takes a housesitting gig that she shares with Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a lazy freeloader who’s trying way too hard to look cool, but is secretly a wisened sweetheart. Each of these characters compliment and contrast each other in easily identifiable, but highly detailed ways. Colaizzo is always willing to dig far below the surface of his characters to further humanize them, even as they sometimes do terrible things to each other (frequently oblivious to the fact that their actions might be hurtful or misconstrued).
Bell, who legitimately lost 45 pounds herself across filming to play the leading role, gives the best performance of her career in Brittany Runs a Marathon, but that’s probably because no one other than Colaizzo has given her such a part before now. Bell shows a great ability to make Brittany’s more likable personality traits known early and often, while gradually incorporating some of her less savoury behaviours over time; all of which evolve – positively and negatively – across her journey of self-improvement. When she hits a personal best, either while running or trying to get her life in order, it means something deeper because the joy registers so perfectly with the character in Bell’s hands. When Brittany lashes out or shows frustration, the viewer becomes disappointed, but we still want to give her the benefit of the doubt, especially when she does something just before the film’s climax that’s borderline unforgivable. Colaizzo’s script is willing to lean into the good and the bad equally, and his matches the writer-director’s tone perfectly, as do the supporting cast members, especially Watkins, who renews the strong chemistry she displayed with Bell earlier this summer in Sword of Trust.
Brittany hasn’t paid attention to her physical and mental health for quite some time, and she’s triggered to the point of obsession by long dormant feelings that have become psychological monsters. Bell and Colaizzo want to take the ups and downs of the hero’s journey in stride, focusing more wisely on the characters rather than the plot or any aesthetic choices. Brittany Runs a Marathon is one of those movies that seems too small or slight to make much of an impact at the box office or during awards season, but it’s the type of film there should be more of. Brittany Runs a Marathon is a work of great perceptiveness, empathy, and humour that leaves a lasting mark on the viewer. It could’ve been a cheesy, inspirational comedy and called it a day, but everyone involved wants this to be something more than basic uplift. It’s the kind of project worth cheering on, and the fact that it’s the last film to cross the summer movie finish line doesn’t damage its status as one of the best movies of the season.
Brittany Runs a Marathon opens in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver on Friday, August 30, 2019.
Check out the trailer for Brittany Runs a Marathon: