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Movie review: Sundance’s popular ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ offers warts-and-all story of personal improvement

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” was popular at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, winning an audience award and getting acquired by Amazon Studios for $14 million. It’s easy to see why.

Jillian Bell in a scene from the film “Brittany Runs a Marathon.”
Jillian Bell in a scene from the film “Brittany Runs a Marathon.”
Provided by the Sundance Institute

“BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON” — 312 stars — Jillian Bell, Alice Lee, Patch Darragh, Michaela Watkins, Micah Stock; R (language throughout, sexuality and some drug material); Broadway; running time: 104 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — “Brittany Runs a Marathon” was popular at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, winning an audience award and getting acquired by Amazon Studios for $14 million.

It’s easy to see why.

Inspired by a true story, Paul Downs Colaizzo’s film follows the story of a 20-something woman in New York who is determined to improve her life.

We meet Brittany (Jillian Bell) at low tide. Like most of us, she uses her strengths — in this case, a sharp sense of humor — to mask her weaknesses — a low self-image that has spilled over into her career and social life.

Brittany has a job at a local theater, but she frequently arrives late and puts off customers. She has a roommate — the image-obsessed social media influencer Gretchen (Alice Lee) — but lives in her shadow. Life has devolved into an empty routine of parties, substance abuse and debasing behaviors. Then her doctor (Patch Darragh) tells Brittany her liver is failing, and it’s time to start taking care of herself.

You’d think Brittany’s family back in Philadelphia would be supportive in this kind of a situation, but as Brittany begrudgingly sets about the process of getting into better shape, she feels more isolated than ever. No one seems to take her efforts seriously, but as she persists, Brittany finds her life changing in more ways than just the number on the bathroom scale.

Since the local gym is too expensive, Brittany finds her way into running and eventually joins a local group with her neighbor Catherine (Michaela Watkins), whose perfect public appearance masks a taxing divorce. Brittany also befriends Seth (Micah Stock), who got into running to impress his young son and shares Brittany’s love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with exercise.

From here, the story rolls forward as Brittany loses weight and eventually sets her sights on running the New York City Marathon with Catherine and Seth. But right about the time “Marathon” looks ready to shift into high gear, Brittany encounters setbacks. These setbacks are what elevate Colaizzo’s effort from a simple “can-do” 104-minute warm fuzzy into a more meaningful film.

Jillian Bell in a scene from the film “Brittany Runs a Marathon.”
Jillian Bell in a scene from the film “Brittany Runs a Marathon.”
Provided by the Sundance Institute

As anyone who has lost weight or jumped headfirst into an exercise program will tell you, dropping pounds is only part of an equation that is eager to reset at the first opportunity. Brittany quickly finds that though losing weight has made a positive impact on many facets of her life, true change requires a bit more, and that journey, warts and all, makes “Marathon” more notable.

Some of the warts come in the form of Brittany’s personality and character. Other warts are a little more off-putting, like scattered R-rated profanity and a subplot about a casual sexual relationship that blossoms between Brittany and a man-child named Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar).

Bell’s performance as Brittany is spot on, and the bumps and cracks in the road eventually lead “Marathon” to a third act that is worth the journey. Even if running or physical fitness is not your thing, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” will speak truths for anyone who has ever set out to improve themselves.

Rating explained: “Brittany Runs a Marathon” draws an R rating for profanity, depictions of substance abuse and some sexual content, as well as dialogue and references.