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‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ offers an engaging film with great performances, authentic dialog

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” is not really about running or marathons; but it certainly is about Brittany.

Based on a true story, this engaging new indie features break-out star Jillian Bell as a working-class Manhattan gal with a not-so-great life. Long overweight, Brittany has so thoroughly internalized other people’s judgment — their tendency to use her, sideline her or step on her — that she is all but dysfunctional, unable to apply herself to a life-plan or accept any genuine overtures of friendship.

When her doctor urges Brittany to lose the weight that’s killing her in more ways than one, she starts running. Initially managing only a block or two, she eventually works up to a 5K — and then, connecting with some other runners, she sets her sights on the New York City Marathon.

As weight comes off, Brittany begins a radical transformation — though her washed-out social and emotional life proves tougher to fix.

This inspiring, funny and very well-written film does just about everything right. The dialog is bracingly authentic, unearthing (among other things) the ugly condescension and co-dependence in Brittany’s relationship with her hotshot Asian roommate. This destructive friendship collapses when Gretchen, realizing she can no longer use Brittany as a doormat, declares somewhat comically, “I never judged you; and believe me, there was a lot to judge!”

Yet even as this implodes, Brittany meets others who contrast with Gretchen by opening up about the mess in their lives — and by reaching out to a woman who still can’t believe anybody wants to treat her well.

Performances are uniformly excellent, highlighted not only by Bell — whose weight runs up and down throughout the tale — but also by Michaela Watkins as a beautiful neighbor who seems to be “all that” but isn’t. Lil Rey Howrey steals his scenes as Brittany’s loyal friend Demetrius, and the wonderful Utkarsh Ambudkar plays a young man who trades shifts with Brittany on a long-term house-sitting gig.

These relationships are a joy to behold, and as Brittany’s climactic run incorporates them all, it’s something of a tear-jerker. Like the rest of the film, that final scene is an object-lesson in accepting help while also pursuing your own goals and dreams.

But these ideas likewise constitute the film’s major misstep: I cannot figure out why so many women in modern movies insist they don’t want marriage. Perhaps it’s a declaration of independence and female empowerment; but to me it always feels agenda-driven and unrealistic. We’re naturally suspicious of men who keep declaring they don’t want long-term commitment; why should it be different for women?

I’m thinking anyone who can shed a fourth of her weight and run 26.2 miles can probably manage wedlock as well.

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