As the credits started to roll on Brittany Runs a Marathon, I began to question my ability to write about this film with any sense of objectivity. I sat there pondering just how much I related to the protagonist, how much the film got me to think about my own habits and behaviors, and how I was now forced to confront truths about myself that I was reticent about and in denial over. I felt like I couldn’t do this film the sort of critical justice it deserves because my own emotions and experiences were so wrapped up in my viewing that I worried anything I had to say about the film would merely be an unlicensed therapy session to an audience (read: you) who just wanted to know if the damn movie was any good or not. I worried that I would put too much of myself into this piece, much as I already have in this opening paragraph.
But the revelatory moment arrived as the lights came up and people started to filter out of the theater, as I overheard multiple conversations from people expressing the exact same feelings I had: that Brittany was a reflection of themselves, that their own insecurities and failings were relatable to what they had just witnessed, that they were motivated to be better because of this film. I realized that my feelings weren’t exclusive, and the power of writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s feature debut was in its universality, even though – or perhaps because – it feels so personal and intimate. Rarely does a film inspire such introspection while maintaining mainstream appeal, but Brittany Runs a Marathon threads that needle remarkably well, especially for a freshman feature.
The story revolves around Brittany (Jillian Bell), an overweight 28-year-old party girl who spends her weeknights drinking with her much skinnier roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee). In a misguided attempt to get a prescription of Adderall for recreationally abusive purposes, Brittany gets a directive from her doctor to try and lose about fifty pounds, not because she needs to be skinny, but because the excesses of her lifestyle are demonstrably unhealthy for her. After a funny scene mocking the outrageous costs of gym membership, Brittany takes up the more cost-effective exercise of running, making friends (Michaela Watkins and Micah Stock) who have their own reasons for putting on running shorts, and ultimately settling on a goal that a year of training will culminate in running the New York Marathon.
Brittany Runs a Marathon is a comedy, and a relatively funny one at that, but its strengths aren’t so much in its humor as they are in its protagonist. Colaizzo’s theater background leads him to perhaps overinvest in his side characters to the point that they feel underdeveloped – Lil Rel Howery as Brittany’s brother-in-law comes to mind – but when it comes to Brittany herself, the film never once loses focus. Brittany is like the comic relief side character from a different ensemble comedy, as she's self-deprecating, deflective, and somewhat self-destructive, but instead of playing those traits for laughs, the film strips away layers of that persona, piece by piece, to reveal the raw emotional core of a person who feels like their life is going nowhere and on the cusp of falling apart. This is just as much a story about self-improvement as it is about moving beyond toxic relationships and impulses, to embrace a better version of yourself even if it means leaving behind the version that is easy and comfortable and, at least on the surface, more exciting.
The weight of the film’s dramatic stakes falls entirely on Bell’s shoulders, and she carries the film over the finish line without faltering. Those aforementioned layers are the result of the nuance Bell brings to moments of banal amusement or excruciating growth, as she goes from egocentricity to progressive self-love to self-destructive loathing to euphoric self-actualization, all with a fluidity and naturality that feels consistent, relatable, and honest. You especially see this in Brittany’s evolving relationships with her social circle, as her self-centeredness gives way to acceptance of mutual support from her running friends and a romantic interest (Utkarsh Ambudar) who is patently ridiculous for his slacker lifestyle but reveals himself to be more than a sexually-motivated fling. Bell's performance feels human; Brittany's a charming and funny person, but she also uses that charm to hide as much self-doubt as any of us have, and I dare you not to see a least a little of yourself in her moments of emotional collapse.
Brittany Runs a Marathon hits so close to home because it speaks to the part of oneself that wonders and wants to know what’s next in one’s life. Brittany is the personified psyche of millennials as they breach out of their twenties, start having families, start getting permanent jobs, and start finding the version of themselves that can grow and change beyond the id of newfound adulthood. Brittany’s journey is the discovery of self-love, something that many of us feel we don’t deserve or cannot attain. In this sense, life itself is the marathon, and Brittany might just be the inspiration you need to start running.