Brittany Runs a Marathon Review
Straddling an awkward line between self empowerment story and fat shaming, Brittany Runs a Marathon is the latest Sundance sensation to prove that the altitude of Park City is leaving critics hallucinating a better film than the one they’re actually seeing. The directorial debut of playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo, Brittany Runs a Marathon is at once a formulaic crowdpleaser, and something far more insidious, repeatedly and problematically conflating the subject of body positivity with the need to lose weight.
What should be a breakout showcase for actress Jillian Bell (who has impressed in comedic supporting roles since 22 Jump Street) doesn’t play to her strengths. From the outset, her character is repeatedly shown doing wacky bits rather than facing up to responsibilities, and as soon as she starts running, becomes increasingly antagonistic to everybody in her orbit for no clear reason, becoming an unlikeable presence even as the film is engineered solely for the audience to cheer on her attempts to train for the marathon. A smarter film would have used this for some in-built commentary on how body positivity and the societal urge to lose weight are often entwined - but it is absolutely tone deaf on this front. Whatever critics saw in it at Sundance has got lost in translation.
Bell stars as Brittany, a 28-year-old New Yorker who is told that she must get in shape after a visit to the doctor. So, by the time we’ve reached the 15 minute mark, she does exactly this; quits partying, changes her diet, and starts running. Soon, she’s joined a running group and has finished her very first 5K, setting her sights on training for the following year’s New York Marathon. But because this is a narrative film, obstacles must be forced in her way; she seems unable to accept the help of her friends who want to sponsor her, and she moves out of her house due to a falling out with her social media obsessed housemate. Moving into the home where she’s pet sitting, she develops a flirtation with fellow pet-sitter Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), whose life is in even more disarray than hers.
The strangest thing about Brittany Runs a Marathon is that it’s based on the story of Colaizzo’s own roommate Brittany, although based on the context the film offers (just some photos of her running the marathon at the end), it’s safe to assume everything aside from this fact is fictionalised. You can only imagine the film’s real life inspiration may have not taken too kindly to this film, with a character loosely based on her shown to be generally unlikeable and always pushing people away, without offering any depth of characterisation to ever justify this. I was left feeling like the writer/director had written himself into a corner when he said he’d write a story about his friend running a marathon, and took it upon himself to create as many forced conflicts as possible to justify making a feature film - not a single one of them ringing true.
But the antagonism is far from the most problematic thing about the way Brittany is characterised. By hiring Jillian Bell, an actress who couldn’t easily be described as overweight, the film is perpetuating unrealistic standards that could be harmful. After all, if she is deemed to be “overweight”, then what about many of the audience members? As the weight loss narrative continues, Bell looking damn near indistinguishable to how she did at the outset, the film pulls one of its more puzzling moves by dropping a Lizzo song on the soundtrack. How an artist whose entire shtick is making body positivity anthems could be unironically used to soundtrack a story of a woman being forced to lose weight (played by an actress who is clearly in a healthy shape) might be one of the more baffling questions raised by an already deeply misjudged film.
It’s not hard to imagine that these flaws would be easy to overlook were the film even in the slightest bit funny. But Colaizzo’s screenplay is so reliant on formula, at times it feels written by a particularly cynical algorithm, with Bell’s attempts at zany improv not sitting comfortably with the story itself - especially when many characters keep suggesting she stop cracking jokes to face up to adult responsibilities. Bell is a talented comic actress, but she’s been forced into a corner and made to play against her strengths. It doesn’t make for satisfying viewing.