In the past decade, there’s been an ever-growing divide in how people think about body issues. The traditional view point associates health and fitness with a thin, trim body. The more radical body-positivity movement (as seen, for example, on Hulu’s Shrill) pushes for acceptance of bodies of all shapes and sizes, arguing that the mental strain of living in a weight loss- and diet-obsessed culture is damaging in and of itself. The well-meaning Sundance darling Brittany Runs A Marathon aims to speak to both camps at once as it tells the uplifting story of one woman’s journey from couch to 5K to New York City Marathon. Instead, it proves just how difficult it is to find a middle ground when it comes to deeply personal issues about body image and self-confidence, particularly as they relate to women. First-time writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo based the film on the real-life fitness journey of a friend, and Brittany Runs A Marathon winds up feeling like a story told by an outsider who’s empathetic toward, but not fully immersed in, a specific lived experience.
Jillian Bell stars as Brittany Forgler, an aimless 28-year-old who hasn’t shaken the hard-partying, unhealthy habits of her early 20s. She visits a doctor hoping to score a prescription for recreational Adderall. Instead she gets a wake-up call about her health. Her blood pressure is high, her liver isn’t looking great, and her BMI falls in the “obese” range. Her doctor recommends she lose 45 to 50 pounds. “I feel like you completely missed the point of those Dove ads,” she quips, in one of many knowing nods toward the body-positive point of view. Shocked at the cost of joining a gym, Brittany decides to simply start running, first just one block at a time, and then (slowly and frequently hilariously) farther and farther.
To the extent that the film works, it’s due to Bell’s flawless performance. A breakout comedic scene-stealer in 22 Jump Street and Rough Night, Bell proves to be a dramatic actor of real caliber, too. Brittany buries her insecurities beneath a veneer of humor, adopting funny voices and self-deprecating wit to make herself into a punchline before the world does. Bell is hilarious and heartbreaking all at once, and Brittany Runs A Marathon is at its best when it’s zeroing in on Brittany’s personal journey, rather than trying to make broader cultural statements about weight and weight loss. She mentally categorizes herself as “the fat sidekick,” and lives her life accordingly, accepting unhappy sexual encounters and passive aggressive comments from friends.
Yet as with a rom-com that puts a beautiful actress in glasses in order to pretend she’s plain, there’s something strange about watching Bell’s average-sized body presented as an overweight aberration—not just in her own mind, but as a seemingly agreed-upon truth within the world of the film. The one plus-sized character introduced to briefly voice an explicitly body-positive message does so through an air of self-doubt, which feels deeply telling about where Colaizzo is coming from. “You changing your life was never about your weight,” Brittany’s compassionate brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery) eventually tells her as the third act pivots to the idea that Brittany’s self-esteem issues are more than skin deep. The truth, however, is that for most of its run time, Brittany Runs A Marathon is deeply obsessed with Brittany’s weight, which we watch drop in specific numbers on her bathroom scale. (Bell lost 40 pounds for the role.) The attempt to have it both ways falls flat, as does the film’s eventual nod toward the dangers of over-exercising—a problem too easily solved and then inadvertently refuted by the climax.
In terms of its filmmaking, Brittany Runs A Marathon has the mix of promise and frustration that often defines a debut feature. Colaizzo locates a welcome visual aesthetic for his opening act, blending a handheld indie look with the bright color palette of a studio comedy. His style of humor is low-key and amiable, largely relying on the charisma of his talented cast. Unfortunately, his desire to tackle Brittany’s journey from every possible angle results in an overflow of underdeveloped supporting characters. In addition to Brittany’s family, there’s her supportive running partners (Michaela Watkins and Micah Stock), Instagram-obsessed roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee), and her potential love interest, a slacker named Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) who takes the story down some charming rom-com detours.
Cramming that many characters into Brittany’s already quite complex fitness journey leaves the film unbalanced and surface-level. (Gretchen, in particular, winds up feeling like a stock mean-girl stereotype.) Indeed, for every moment of nuance, Brittany Runs A Marathon indulges in a weight-loss-story cliché, like the image of Brittany reaching into the trash to finish off her diet-breaking cheese fries. Though well-intentioned and frequently charming, this is a message movie with a mixed message. It will no doubt motivate many viewers to start their own fitness journeys. In terms of changing the cultural conversation, however, it can’t quite make it over the finish line.