Brittany Runs a Marathon
A woman with a non-existent career path and a history of abysmal life choices decides to motivate herself by entering the New York City Marathon.
1 hour, 43 minutes
August 23, 2019
Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo
Writer: Paul Downs Colaizzo
Composer: Duncan Thum
Starring: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Over a hundred films were featured at the Sydney Film Festival, yet somehow I felt inexplicably drawn to see this particular movie. It wasn’t due to any famous names–this is actually Paul Downs Colaizzo’s directorial debut. While the fact that it was on my radar due to winning the Audience Award for the best Dramatic film, along with being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, that wasn’t the ultimate deciding factor. Instead, it was the film’s logline, along with the trailer and images.
I had this niggling feeling that I would be able to relate to this movie.
Feeling my weight slide out of my control, a few years back I decided to take a more active approach to managing my health. So I became a runner… admittedly because it’s cheap. After a few months, I was running further than I ever dreamt was possible for someone like myself, and while I have since been on and off the track due to recovering from surgery or changes in work life schedules, it’s a feeling of accomplishment that I can only hope such a film like Brittany Runs a Marathon taps into.
I must say, I wasn’t disappointed…
Violence/Scary Images: None. Unless you consider running scary.
Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb is dropped a few times. H*ll is said casually, along with God’s name being used in vain. There are a lot of derogatory comments about overweight people–sometimes self-deprecating, and other times meant as a direct insult. Characters frequently insult or demean each other.
Drug/Alcohol References: Marijuana is smoked on screen. Alcohol is consumed heavily by several characters.
Sexual Content: There are several conversations about a character’s sexually active lifestyle. Oral sex is hinted but not shown. There is one sex scene between an unmarried couple, which is a close-up shot of the woman’s facial expression. A man fumbles with a condom packet. No nudity, although the bare backs of a woman and a man are shown. There is a homosexual married couple. One woman is going through a divorce.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Content: Some characters are shown being irresponsible in their jobs. Two characters are shown to be highly insecure, which results in them pushing away and hurting the people around them with mean comments.
Positive Content: This film shows that everyone is deserving of love, particularly self-care. It promotes hard work, tenacity, and facing one’s fears, pushing the message that anyone can do it. It also shows that it’s okay to accept help from others; it’s not a sign of pity or failure, but rather it’s a way for people to extend their friendship.
It’s a hot topic and a loaded word. While it’s important for art to reflect the diversity of life, at its most insipid, that desire can be horribly miscommunicated, with TV and film castings looking more like a checklist of sexualities and racial profiling as opposed to a genuine commitment to portraying a greater variety of society’s stories on screen. So I don’t at all use it lightly when I say that it’s the greatest strength of Colazzio’s expertly handled film, Brittany Runs a Marathon.
When we talk about representation in film, it’s often conflated with relatability. When Wonder Woman first released, the media constantly told me that finally I’d be able to relate to a superhero at a deeper level because we both shared the same gender. And yes, while it was refreshing to see a female lead for once, to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t the mind-blowing experience that was promised. I related to Wonder Woman just as much as I did towards a teenage boy with newly found web-slinging capabilities, or a multi-millionaire orphan with a dark tendency to fight Gotham’s crime.
When the issue of representation does come up, sometimes it subconsciously undermines the natural power of storytelling. People at my local sports club assumed I had taken up archery because of Katniss Everdeen, when really it was John Rambo. Earlier this year, my heart wept for Cleo’s living situation in Mexico City, in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. I gasped with worry over the events in Parasite, and I developed a giddy grin as I watched Toothless try to woo a Light Fury in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. If we need to be the same gender, sexuality, culture, and skin tone (and sometimes even species) in order to feel empathy for one another, then we have failed in spreading Christ’s message to the world, and narrative storytelling is dead.
Then Brittany Runs a Marathon strides in and suddenly connects at an even deeper level than all the other films produced this year. No, you don’t need to “see yourself” on screen to appreciate the morals and emotions of the story, but when you uncover the rare film that does, it’s nothing short of a magical cinematic experience.
As an actor, I’m constantly wading through casting calls. Yet due to my thyroid being on the blink and now suffering from weight issues, I’m always scrolling past job descriptions that mention “fit”, “healthy”, “attractive”, “slim”, “femme fatale” and any other combination of words that basically spell out the painful fact that they’re not looking for someone like me. Sure, cinema is becoming more diverse, but not in the looks department.
So it’s so refreshing to see that roles like Brittany do exist–that we don’t need to be resigned to the “funny fat friend” stereotype, where an entire assortment of different female body types are seemingly lumped together and represented by either Rebel Wilson, Melissa McCarthy, and Amy Schumer. While Jillian Bell, who plays Brittany, is a comedian, her character is a lot more grounded in reality, compared to other famous “chubby” roles like Bridget Jones.
Like many people before her, Brittany finds herself stuck in a rut and is forced to confront the possibility that she may be her own worst enemy. Seeing no way forward with her current lifestyle, she decides to make a series of changes, starting with her fitness and weight issues. The plot sounds incredibly basic and rather familiar, yet this film manages to hit all the right tonal beats. It nails the inner psyche of an overweight woman. It highlights simplicity of running along with its toxic mystique. She is a beautifully flawed character, so when she achieves something, we cheer, and when she goes backward, our hearts break. One thing is clear–we are with her every step of the way on her journey of self-improvement, and that is because her story may be extremely close to our own.
Her character unpacks that elitist mentality that’s rife in the exercise world; that oxymoronic sense where society judges overweight people for not getting more active, and yet,as the uproar against using plus-sized mannequins to advertise active wear shows, the physically imperfect woman is seemingly also not wanted in those spaces. Brittany never verbalizes it, yet when she dresses up in her workout clothes for the first time, a long dolly shot of the front door is all that’s needed to encapsulate all those hidden fears and the bravery that’s required simply to face the world.
The path to self-improvement is not an easy journey, and Brittany Runs a Marathon takes no shortcuts. Both narratively and in real life. The film doesn’t rely on prosthetics and fat suits. Jillian Bell actually loses the weight in the same way as her character. Brittany certainly doesn’t follow a Christian lifestyle–far from it–but regardless of any differences in life choices and physical issues, her character’s struggles are universal and deep enough for anyone to connect with and find inspiring.
It is a film about connections. It’s one of the most diverse movies of the year, and while it’s no doubt partly intentional, it does feel natural as opposed to ticking off the “required representation” checklist. Sure, there are characters from different racial backgrounds and sexual orientations, but the film also features a character from a different socio-economic status. Best of all, it’s not tokenistic with these traits; the movie doesn’t make them the focal point of the narrative. It’s merely a group of people just trying to journey together through whatever obstacles life throws at them.
The film does have a few flaws. While Brittany creates her own obstacles the majority of the time, the other sole character that could fit the bill as an antagonist is overly one-dimensional, which sorely stands out compared to the rest of the well-developed roles. The story is fleshed out, but the narrative is still predictable, following a pattern that we’ve all seen before. Brittany Runs a Marathon doesn’t hold too many surprises, though it’s certainly a case where it’s the journey that matters.
Some people may still find this film to be overly simplistic and predictable, but be sure to give this one a look–it may very well be the most inspiring piece of cinema that you watch this year.
+ Nails its representation
+ Stars a beautifully-flawed but loveable character
+ Down to earth
- One-dimensional antagonist
- Some clichés
- Predictable plot