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Race for the prize

Jillian Bell’s marathon comedy has the power to change lives



Jillian Bell in Brittany Runs A Marathon

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In a culture justifiably sensitive to body-shaming, Brittany Runs A Marathon transcends that topical tightrope. 

It’s a funny, moving story (inspired by a real one) about a pudgy, prone-to-party New Yorker (Jillian Bell, in a breakout lead turn) who gets a wake-up call when her doctor gives her a bad bill of health. After a neighbor photographer (Michaela Watkins) encourages her to join her running club, Brittany makes it her goal to complete the NYC marathon.

That’s the simple version, but the details of how that plays out are much more complicated.

The Audience Award Winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Brittany Runs A Marathon beat out other crowd pleasers with layers of human complexity and even ugliness that feel-good movies often avoid.

That’s especially bold for a film whose protagonist is a woman struggling with her self-image. The portrayal of Brittany is thoughtful, but the impulse would be to craft an arc for her that’s strictly sympathetic. It isn’t. A personal transformation requires more than a sprint, and Brittany has more to work through than a fitness regimen. 

To do so requires leaning on a network of support and letting go of toxic influences. With clever wit and unflinching candor, this film shows how difficult it can be to do both. 

Fleshing that out is a superb ensemble. Joining Brittany in the running club is her neighbor Seth (Micah Stock), and their trio of accountability has great chemistry. There’s also Demetrius (Get Out scene-stealer Lil Rel Howery), Brittany’s brother-in-law and father figure, plus a co-worker named Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) with whom Brittany initially clashes but then bonds.

With a super adorable charm laced with a dry sardonic edge, Bell instantly wins us over within the film’s first minute. She’s genuinely funny but uses humor as a defense mechanism. A particular tell: a jokey British accent, which she instinctively shifts to when feeling her most self-
conscious. 

Her anxiety is internal but palpable, and it speaks to the power of Bell’s performance that even the smallest initial steps of attempting (and failing at) exercise made me emotional. The struggle is real and courage is not easily come by, but the underlying journey is universal: the need to take responsibility and ownership for your life, regardless of what your own personal challenge may be.

Bell and writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo have us rooting for Brittany every step of the way, but are also honest enough to dramatize how self-loathing can cause someone to act out in the worst ways and hurt others around them.

There’s only one answer to ending that cycle: you have to let your guard down and let people in. When you do, you not only gain strength from the support they offer but you become a pillar of strength for them as well, because we all need others to believe in us when we cannot. That rich, life-giving symmetry of relationships is what Brittany Runs A Marathon is really all about, and it’ll leave you in a sobbing puddle of the most uplifting kind. 

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