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'Brittany Runs a Marathon' takes a realistic, life-affirming look at self-improvement

Amazon Studios

Amazon Studios

As America hits the height of the body-positivity movement, a film like Brittany Runs a Marathon could be treading on tricky ground. A story about a New York City slacker who decides to lose a bunch of weight and run a marathon might’ve once seemed like a universally feel-good watch, but contemporary discourse around fitness and body image suggests that’s no longer a given.

Criticism wouldn’t be unfounded if this movie played out like some Hollywood “weight-loss journey” cliché. Instead, Brittany Runs a Marathon embraces the complexities of modern health, exploring what self-betterment really means.

Writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo based the movie on his friend and former roommate, Brittany O’Neil, but her life is more a framework than a one-to-one source match. As such, Brittany Runs a Marathon can sidestep biopic pitfalls, round out its cast with novel supporting characters, and explore broader themes without feeling inauthentic. Weight is the catalyst, but the film’s ultimate focus is the balance of acceptance and self-improvement, whether that means proving something to yourself, refocusing creative energy, or keeping old demons at bay.

This version of Brittany (Jillian Bell) is a hard-partying, fast food-loving theater usher who’s getting into her late twenties. Despite her smarts and masterful comedic timing, she has little ambition beyond getting fucked up with her narcissist roommate (Alice Lee) and sleeping a lot. One day Brittany heads to a cheap doctor (Patch Darragh) to score Adderall. He sees through the ruse and blindsides her with some actual medical advice: Help out your liver and try losing some weight. “I feel like you totally missed the point of those Dove ads,” Brittany replies.

She eventually decides that a little exercise might not be the worst thing. After a jog around the block, Brittany joins her neighbor’s (Michaela Watkins) running club and soon sets her sights higher.

Marathon movies have extremely predictable arcs—and this thing isn’t called Brittany Tries to Run a Marathon—so to work, it needs a compelling lead-up that doesn’t bank on a thrilling conclusion. Colaizzo lets Brittany backslide just as hard as she progresses, but his film’s success is predicated on a realistic approach to health. Though a marathon is a daunting goal, this isn’t some extreme fitness aspiration piece. In fact, it provides a quasi-Buddhist outlook: ditch the bathroom scale, exercise without overdoing it, indulge in occasional drinks and dessert. Very Middle Path.

Brittany Runs a Marathon also offers welcome models of 21st-century love. The matter-of-factness with which Colaizzo reveals two gay dads, an interracial marriage, and a brown love interest who isn’t a cab driver/doctor/terrorist furthers an implicit mission of representation and really makes an impact on the story. It doesn’t hurt that the cast members filling said roles are as funny as they are moving. Bell’s the standout here, but running pal Seth (Micah Stock), de facto dad Demetrius (Lil Rel Howery), and romantic partner Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) all bring the goods.

Put it together, and you get a winning take on wellness—equal parts fun and heartfelt—that’s an impressive debut feature for Paul Downs Colaizzo.

Brittany Runs a Marathon
Directed by Paul Downs Colaizzo
Area theaters, now playing