Brittany Runs a Marathon ***

TV vet Jillian Bell owns the screen in this genial, touching and sometimes preachy dramedy, inspired by a true story, about a plus-size New York City millennial with self-esteem issues who discovers that the road to personal fulfillment is paved with potholes and detours.

Is it worth $10? Yes

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” is the movie equivalent of that fiercely loyal friend with no patience for excuses and a borderline vicious fondness for exercising tough love. It doesn't sugarcoat reality checks and sees right through your claims that everything is OK when, come on now, a kindergartner can tell your life is a mess.

But to hear it from the title character, played by a winning Jillian Bell, life is the bubbles: an undemanding job as a theater usher, sharing a New York City apartment with a far more successful friend, using a sharp tongue and quick wit to get what you want, and a propensity to be approached by men at bars because she's, you know, approachable. Okay, so she could shed a few pounds, but when one's daily routine plays out like an endless summer internship in the Big Apple, what's there to complain about?

Writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo, a playwright making an auspicious feature debut, wastes little time in pulling the curtain. Brittany is broke and in debt. The job at the theater barely covers the bills, and her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee) sees her as a non-threatening companion to build up her own confidence. When she's out on the town, Brittany drinks too much, and those men who come talk to her are just using her as a backup plan. In one of many, many splashes of cold water the director throws our way, a potential suitor invites to the bathroom and gives her a handful of napkins. For her knees.

But the buck stops with Dr. Falloway (Patch Darragh), who refuses to fill a prescription for Adderall and instead suggests that she lose 55 pounds. The word is spelled o-b-e-s-e. But Brittany can't be bothered to step out of her comfort zone, much less after her landlady Shannon (Jennifer Dundas), a divorcée with an infinite wellspring of compassion and heartache beneath her cool and composed exterior, invites her to join her running group. But she's also smart enough to tell she's due for some lifestyle changes.

It comes as no surprise that her first sprinting outing does not go well. But she makes a new friend in fellow struggler Seth (an appealing Micah Stock), who talks her into sticking to the running thing just when she's ready to throw in the towel. An unlikely bond forms between Brittany, Shannon and Seth as they make a pact to run the New York Marathon. Colaizzo retains her focus on Brittany and her challenges, but he also introduces details about her new friends' lives, such as casually introducing Seth's husband and son and delving into Shannon's marital struggles.

This is the point when a more conventional film would turn into an underdog tale that builds up to a rousing climax, aka the big race. But “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is a more sobering kind of crowd-pleaser. Colaizzo, who loosely based the film on his friend Brittany O'Neill's own transformative journey, dexterously juggles laughs while resisting the temptation to undermine his protagonist's internal pain.

Most crucially, he doesn't shy away from her cruel and self-destructive behavior when faced with a series of setbacks. Perhaps most bristling is how Brittany's friendship with Gretchen deteriorates as her physique continues to improve. Deep-seated fissures widen between the two women, and Colaizzo once again pulls no punches. The arguments are discomfiting and lacerating, and the film is all the stronger for it.


Colaizzo introduces another thorn on Brittany's side after she lands a housesitting gig, in the form of Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), the slacker whom, to her dismay, is sharing job duties with her. But much like most of the people she encounters, an unsavory first impression gives way to more harmonious fraternizing.

If there's something keeping “Brittany Runs a Marathon” from breaking away from the pack is Colaizzo's tendency to spell out the characters' issues like one would during a therapy session. The filmmaker doesn't appear to trust the story to resonate on its own terms, and the propensity to saddle the cast with an excess of explanatory dialogue does a disservice to both the funny and serious parts. It shows the first-time filmmaker being overly protective of his content, to the point that it undermines otherwise strong material. In flirting with didacticism, the film hints at the run-of-the-mill Lifetime production it could have been in lesser hands.

But much like its fallible yet stubbornly driven central figure, “Marathon” gets up, dusts itself off and keeps going until it reaches a powerful climactic crisis. Brittany finds herself well over the halfway point of her punishing run, beset by sheer exhaustion and excruciating pain. The scene hinges on Bell's ability to make us believe she'd be willing to drop everything because it just hurts too much. It might not be most subtle parallel Colaizzo is making between the character's emotional fatigue and her physical breaking point, but Bell (Comedy Central's “Workaholics,” HBO's “Eastbound & Down”) comes through with flying colors. She sells the moment of uplift in a film that sometimes tries a little too hard to be inspirational but manages to give you all the feels all the same. These are hard-earned tears.

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