By: Jolie Featherstone
Paul Downs Colaizzo’s directorial debut, Brittany Runs a Marathon, offers a progressive and empathetic take on a classic storyline that has historically had insidious effects on our view of body image. The film packs an emotional punch in its ambition to tell a compassionate fable reminding us that everyone walks (er…runs) their own journey in life.
The straightforward title imparts the story right off the bat. The titular twenty-something Brittany (Jillian Bell) is a zany and warm New Yorker who is living her life one day at a time. Her directionless mentality means that she’s always available to support her friends in their meandering adventures – which typically means boozy late nights at bars leading to being late for work in the morning. When Brittany visits a doctor (to score Adderall, naturally), she receives some troubling health news. She’s advised by the doctor to lose 40-50 pounds to remedy a myriad of diagnoses including elevated heart rate and high blood pressure. Faced with all of the areas in her life that she’s unhappy with – career, friendships, debt – Brittany decides to lace up and run one block. The next day she runs two. Soon, Brittany is making strides to getting her life on track.
Tales of losing weight as a catalyst for a positive life change are not new to Hollywood. Women are typically overrepresented in these stories. In the last 10 years, these tales have “evolved” into commentary surrounding concerns over “health” as opposed to weight. Of course, they are typically little more than fatphobia lightly veiled by claims of being concerned about someone’s well-being. Ultimately, Brittany Runs a Marathon is still a story where a woman’s weight and body type are shown in conjunction with her morality. In the beginning, Brittany is shown as being thoughtless and indulgent. As each pound is shed, she makes another step toward living a more wholesome life. Normally I wouldn’t be as concerned about this within the context of a film that is based on someone’s lived experience. However, the filmmakers have said that it is very loosely based on a friend. The conflation of weight and morality is commonly used as a shorthand in entertainment, thus inadvertently perpetuating a very negative and harmful ideology. With film, that conflation can be even more potent due to the medium’s visual nature. In this film, the camera, particularly in the first few scenes, takes long gazes at various parts of Brittany’s body. For a film that espouses the rhetoric that Brittany’s journey is not about her weight but “taking responsibility,” it spends a lot more time than necessary highlighting the character’s body.
With that said, Brittany Runs a Marathon does a lot of things right. Genuine empathy and compassion come through in the writing. The film pays attention to both the ups and downs of her journey and treats both as valuable. One of the main changes Brittany must work on is learning how to accept help and love, as opposed to maintaining a comfortable but unhealthy status quo – particularly when it comes to friendships. She also learns how to interrogate her own implicit biases. In a particularly honest and telling scene, Brittany, in a state of intoxication during a rough time in her journey, publicly fat-shames an innocent woman. As someone who has been on the receiving end of almost exactly this scene multiple times in my life, the scene was brutally honest in how it shows that sometimes the people society assumes would band together can also perpetuate hurtful commentary because they are dealing with their own internalized hate. It also demonstrates how bystanders and loved ones, especially when they are not part of the community being penalized, don’t always know how to handle the situation. Later on, Brittany and her brother-in-law (Uncle Drew’s Lil Rey Howery) have a heart-to-heart about her actions. Although he is firm in condemning her actions, he focuses on what led her to behave in that way. One of the most insightful lines in the film is when Brittany’s brother-in-law asks “Because you’re embarrassed, you’re going to make yourself an island?” – pointing to how Brittany’s deep-seated fears lead her edit and minimize herself.
The film extends its loving compassion to all of the characters in Brittany’s world. Brittany’s running friends are dealing with their own battles; reminding Brittany that appearances are never the full picture of a person. Her friendships with her running mates and her colleague-turned-love interest Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) teach her that being in a healthy and functional relationship means both accepting love and giving it.
Jillian Bell created magic in this performance. Bell has consistently delivered sharply clever comedic performances in Hollywood films and TV shows. Here, Bell shows off her chops as a top-notch leading lady with boundless energy to carry a film. She serves a highly integrated and organic performance as Brittany. She also underwent a physical transformation for the role. She noted in an interview with Elle that no one had asked her to, but she chose to lose 40 pounds so that she could fully experience the character’s mental, emotional, and physical journey. In this role, Bell opens the door even further for multi-faceted female characters.
The frequent and audible audience reactions underscored that this film hit people on an emotional level. There were frequent murmurs throughout the film, all across the theatre, expressing joy and distress throughout Brittany’s journey. The film is bright and uplifting, and never talks down to the audience. The cinematography struggled with conveying compassion and felt jittery and off-side at times, but that shouldn’t detract too much from the experience. Brittany Runs a Marathon succeeds in shifting the narrative to a compassionate place.
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Jolie Featherstone: @TOFilmFiles