'Brittany Runs A Marathon' Review: An Inspiring, Uproarious Crowdpleaser Turns Jillian Bell Into A Star [Sundance]

In 2014, the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild followed Reese Witherspoon's 1,100 mile-long hike across the Pacific Crest Trail. Five years later, Brittany Runs a Marathon (one of our anticipated titles from Sundance this year) also tells the true story of a woman who uses a long distance run to get her mess of a life in order. But playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo's approach as a first-time writer/director is infinitely funnier, fairly less harrowing, but equally significant as a portrait of a woman who needs to find confidence and comfort in her own body.

Brittany Runs a Marathon follows Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street, Rough Night) as a 27-year old woman who has a clearcut schedule. She spends her nights clubbing with friends, her mornings recovering from the night before, and her afternoons waking up and shuffling off to work at a nearby improv club before doing it all over again. She's the funny one in her friend group, always armed with a goofy bit to get out of an awkward conversation or an amusing excuse to make up for being late to work, and she has no problem settling for a one night stand with a random dude at the club. But she's also in pretty bad physical shape.

When Brittney heads to a Yelp-recommended doctor in the hopes of easily getting some Adderall, she gets the devastating revelation of her elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, and fatty liver. Initially, Brittany takes it in stride with a little self-deprecating humor ("Even my liver is overweight?"). But before you know it, she's bawling at home and rethinking her destructive lifestyle. Maybe it's time for Brittany to follow in the footsteps of her divorced neighbor Catherine (Michaela Watkins) and do some serious running, both literally and figuratively. However, this is something that Brittany has to take one block at a time.

Brittany Runs a Marathon could have easily been a cookie cutter inspirational sports story following training regimes that turn Brittany into a fitness dynamo striving to run in the New York City marathon. But this movie is about so much more than getting in shape. Sure, it has plenty to say about being comfortable in your own body. And it hits home the idea of avoiding others who try to lump you into a certain personality bubble simply because you're overweight and once lived a carefree lifestyle that was full of more punchlines than purpose. People like her tired, social media-famous friend Gretchen (Alice Lee). But Brittany has to confront much more than that.

Paul Downs Colaizzo brings an authentic approach to this life-changing weight loss, largely thanks to the fact that it was inspired by the real life journey of one of his best friends. It celebrates the highs of dropping major poundage while showing the lows of the poor decisions that set you back, even when you're on the right path. But it's the emotional rollercoaster that takes a toll on you when you're trying to achieve something like this, and that's where Jillian Bell shows that she's so much more than a big screen comedic sidekick. Yes, Bell has no problem inciting laughter, but it's the strength of her dramatic chops, especially when it comes to her quiet, introspective character moments, that really sell the heart of this story.

Thankfully, when Brittany gets serious about her life, she never loses the funny girl inside, even when she drops weight. Brittany can change who she is without losing what makes her special. A little British voice she uses to get through awkward situations doesn't need to get shoved aside simply because she's having an easier time getting dates with men. Jillian Bell keeps the laughs coming while she navigates a new world of dating, including a wonderful meet-cute with a chill, amusing housesitter played by Pitch Perfect supporting star Utkarsh Ambudkar. But more than that, she starts to understand what it means to feel beautiful and confident.

As someone who has struggled with being overweight and the dissatisfaction that can come from it, Brittany Runs a Marathon is an inspiration. There's so much it gets right about the feelings of inadequacy, even when you have a sense of humor to keep life from being totally miserable. And it carries a hefty message about bolstering healthy lifestyle decisions and relationships in a wholly relevant manner, especially during this period of vapid obsession with self-image that our society perpetuates online. Even more impressively, it does all of this without being preachy or pretentious, and it brings a healthy dose of laughter and maybe even motivation to run a marathon of our own, whatever that might mean.

Amazon Studios picked up Brittany Runs a Marathon from Sundance, but it doesn't yet have an official release date.

/Film rating: 8.5 out of 10