Brittany Runs a Marathon
In the past decade or so, there’s been an ever-growing divide in how people think about body issues. The traditional viewpoint associating health and fitness with a thin, trim body. And the more radical body-positive movement pushing for acceptance of bodies of all shapes and sizes. The well-intended Sundance darling Brittany Runs a Marathon aims to speak to both camps at once as it tells the uplifting story of one woman’s journey from couch to 5K to New York City Marathon. But in actuality, it proves just how difficult it is to find a middle ground when it comes to deeply personal issues about body image and self-confidence. Writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo, giving his directorial debut, based the film on the real-life fitness journey of a friend, and Brittany Runs a Marathon winds up feeling like a story told by an outsider who’s empathetic toward, but not fully immersed in, a specific lived experience.
The story begins with Brittany (Jillian Bell) joking her way through a predicament. She attends a doctor’s visit hoping to get a prescription for Adderall, but her appointment veers off course when she is instead told her lifestyle is putting her health as risk. Her heart rate, blood pressure and BMI (Body Mass Index) are high, and her doctor recommends that she lose fifty pounds. For Brittany, who sleeps until noon and drinks all night with friends, the diagnosis is unthinkable; requiring her to change her whole life. But she does, one agonizing step at a time. Brittany starts running to avoid having to pay for a gym membership. And as she progresses she soon sets the goal to run the New York City Marathon.
In terms of its filmmaking, Brittany Runs a Marathon is a mix. Colaizzo’s visual aesthetic blends a handheld indie look with a very ugly bright color palette of a studio comedy. His style of humor is low-key and amiable, largely relying on the charisma of his cast. Unfortunately, his desire to tackle Brittany’s journey from every possible angle results in an abundance of underdeveloped supporting characters. In addition to Brittany’s family, there’s her supportive running partners (Michaela Watkins and Micha Stock), Instagram-obsessed roommate, Gretchen (Alice Lee), and her potential love interest, a slacker named Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) who takes the story the down rom-com detours. Cramming that many characters into Brittany’s already complex fitness journey leaves the film unbalanced and surface-level. (The Gretchen character, in particular, winds up feeling a one-dimensional mean-girl stereotype.) But, for every bit of nuance, Brittany Runs a Marathon indulges in a weigh-loss-story cliché, like the image of Brittany reaching into the trash to finish off her diet-breaking cheese fries. Though well-intended and at times charming, Brittany Runs a Marathon is a message movie with a mixed, unbalanced message. It will no doubt motivate many viewers to start their own fitness journeys. But in terms of changing the cultural conversation, it just can’t quite make it over the finish line.
Ash Is Purest White
The wheels of fortune keep turning and turning in Ash Is Purest White, carrying onetime lovers away form each other before bringing them back together, only to start the cycle all over again. In the ever-shifting China that has become writer-director Jia Zhangke’s singular theme throughout his career, you can be on top of the world at point, having a chauffer take you wherever one day, but don’t ever get too comfortable, you may have to crash a wedding in order to get a hot meal the next day. Those kind of rapid shifts in luck are abundant in his latest work.
Ash Is Purest White may be larger in scale than some of Jia’s previous work, but he’s hardly changing his ways. He once again casts his wife and consistent lead actress Zhao Tao as a good-hearted woman let down and eventually remade in lockstep with her country’s growing pains. The actress plays Qiao, girlfriend to the small-time hustler Bin (Liao Fan), a developer in the northern city Datong. When we first them in 2001, Bin’s on the rise, especially when his career vastly benefits from a sudden act of violence that takes out his benevolent superior. But what violence gives, it also gleefully takes away, as they both learn when the film moves forward to 2006, and later all the way to the present day. In a lovely subtle touch, Jia never announces these jumps in time, simply letting the evolving cell-phone technology make that point.
But as always, Jia is fascinated in the ways that China is changing, and how that forward push is experienced by people who are just trying to keep their feet on the ground. Essentially though Ash Is Purest White is a long melancholic summation of better movies the brilliant Jia Zhangke has made before (A Touch of Sin and Mountains May Depart), and though he still finds ways to speak on some of the fixations that have always dominated his work, his latest work is ultimately just feels fine.