Brittany Runs a Marathon has the right energy but comes up short

Playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo’s directorial debut is well-meaning, but the sitcom-ish treatment does it no favours.

Jillian Bell stars as Brittany, an underemployed late-20s-something New Yorker transplanted from Philly in Brittany Runs a Marathon. She spends most of her money on partying and eating. When she goes out with her friends, who all seem to be getting their lives together, she’s the “funny friend.” Brittany is always good for a silly voice or a drole witticism and, unsurprisingly, she measures her value as a person on her ability to make people laugh. After a visit to the doctor where, in simple terms, he tells her to lose weight, Brittany is crestfallen. She cries and mopes before she finally chooses to make changes in her life. In greyed Converse shoes, she steps out of her apartment and goes on her first run.

The rest of Brittany’s story quickly falls into place. She starts to enjoy running, especially as she begins to see tangible changes to her body. Her self-worth, once tied up with her humour, suddenly becomes tied up in her running and weight-loss. With some new running friends, she decides she wants to train for the New York City marathon. The crux of the film, ostensibly, is about this quest.

Brittany Runs a Marathon has that bubbly pop sincerity of a lot of Sundance hits. It is a movie about one person’s humble quest and their quirky adventures along the way. Visually it’s low-tier HBO sitcom, and every obstacle feels fabricated as a means for narrative tension. The film is built around Jillian Harris’s performance, and while she and the rest of the cast are great, they’re not quite good enough to elevate the material.

Brittany Runs a Marathon struggles to overcome the sense that it would have worked better as a tight thirty-minute episode of TV than a feature-length film. The movie is sincere, but that does little to assuage that it has a “been there, done that” feel. With some brief detours in focus, the script is fine. It has no apparent blunders and feels authentic but is that enough? It depends on what you’re looking for when you go to the movies. If you want something familiar that will mostly make you feel good, then Brittany Runs a Marathon might be for you.

If there is any point where the film struggles, though, it is in the treatment of Brittany’s body. Brittany has very low self-esteem at the beginning of the film, and the movie tries to frame this as more than just a weight-loss story and make it something more profound.

The camera lingers uncomfortably on Brittany’s body. In a short sequence, the camera pans on her from behind as she puts on pants. The shot isn’t leering, but there is a clear sense of judgement as it zeroes in on her cellulite. It becomes less about her journey to feeling in control and more about the social pressures to be thin. Brittany’s body becomes a war ground for empowering “be yourself” slogans, but it often feels like her physicality repulses the camera. The direction of the script suggests Brittany’s quest is to find happiness, but the movie is continuously indulging in the judgmental gaze it’s working against. 

It’s not that the movie is particularly offensive; in fact, it’s far from it. The film tries to tick all the right boxes and comes out just fine. It coasts on interesting characters and performances but the writing itself is never particularly compelling. The film’s sitcom visual style does nothing with the possibilities of using the central image of the film as a means to elevate the material — a frustrating missed opportunity. 

Brittany Runs a Marathon is a decent inspirational movie with its heart in the right place. It aims to inspire in the most obvious way possible and that’s not a bad thing in this dark hellscape we find ourselves in. For some audiences (aka me), this isn’t enough, but that doesn’t discount that the film is mildly enjoyable. ■

Brittany Runs a Marathon opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 30. Watch the trailer here: