Sundance 2019: Brittany Runs a Marathon, To the Stars, Before You Know It

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The business side of Sundance goes hand in hand with the hype: it can be exciting to see a movie go from “bland title in the film program book” to big acquisition over the course of one rapturous world premiere. Such is the saga of Paul Downs Colaizzo’s comedy “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” which was acquired by Amazon during the festival, and went on to win Sundance’s Audience Award. 

Jillian Bell stars in the movie as Brittany, a self-amusing New York twenty-something whose life on autopilot has started to ruin her self-esteem, and lead to an unhealthy lifestyle. She’s inspired by her neighbor upstairs (Michaela Watkins) to start running on her own, and then join a runners group. That’s where she meets Micah Stock’s Seth, who quickly becomes her friend, and they inspire each other to keep going. Brittany also makes a positive improvement in her life when she gets a job as a dog sitter that lets her stay in a swanky NY apartment, even though she has to share the space with the extremely goofy Jarn (Uktarsh Ambudkar). 

Here’s where I confide that the dialogue-driven comedy of “Brittany Runs a Marathon” didn’t work for me, but the strong cast goes a long way: I recognize that Jillian Bell is long overdue for star status (we didn’t forget how great she was in “22 Jump Street” right?) And while the script seems like it’s trying too hard with its characters and the overly kooky things they say, I recognize the work being put in by the supporting cast, enriching side characters beyond just script devices meant to butt heads with Brittany in one way or the other. Michaela Watkins is totally endearing as the athletic neighbor who has her own sadness that she uses running to keep at bay, Utkarsh Ambudkar is charming as Brittany’s slacker friend and eventual love interest Jarn, and Micah Stock is a warming presence as an unexpected friend who initially shares Brittany’s exhaustion with running. Even Lil Rel Howery gets some emotional work in, playing Brittany’s emotional support and brother-in-law who is always a video chat away. 

Aside from its cast, the winningest aspect of Colaizzo’s script is Brittany’s emotional arc, which avoids the expected path. It becomes less about Brittany’s transformation and more about her understanding proper motivation for such a life-change. The film feels even more full because of how it dares to make her unlikable, and vain at some points, emphasizing its philosophy with examples of how we lie about ourselves on social media or in person. Colaizzo’s script offers a clear idea of how happiness is a long way to go, even after reaching a physical change. 

Director Martha Stephens returns to Sundance after her 2014 co-directorial project “Land Ho!” with one of the more ambitious and classical titles in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. “To the Stars,” written by Shannon Bradley-Colleary like a 500-page novel written in the 1960s, and filmed in gorgeous black-and-white cinematographer Andrew Reed, is a film from a different time, as if trying to be an American epic that was never told in that period. 

The film starts with Kara Hayward’s Iris Deerborne, an awkward, bespectacled teenager who seems crumpled by the pressures of the world—her mother Francie (Jordana Spiro) wants her Iris to be a different and more open person, and the boys terrorize her as she walks to school, as if she’s fresh meat. Then Maggie (Liana Liberato) appears. She’s the opposite to the mousy Iris in a lot of ways—confident, unafraid to throw rocks back at the boys, and she said that before she moved to this small Oklahoma town, her father was a photographer with Life Magazine, working with the likes of Marilyn Monroe. This last tidbit wins the awe of popular girls like Clarissa (Madisen Beaty), who pick on Iris. But as Iris spends more time with Maggie, she learns more about the tragedy that moved Maggie to this new town. Meanwhile, Iris has her own coming-of-age arc as she observes how the secretive nature of her town turns people toxic.  

While the center of the story is Iris and Francie forging their friendship in their growth and being honest with themselves, the parents in supporting roles can be just as compelling, if not more so. The film is expertly cast for actors to bring different texture, including Jordan Spiro, Tony Hale, Malin Akerman, Shea Whigham. In a story about everyone lying to themselves and others about their happiness, such private pains are captured by Andrew Reed’s wide-scope cinematography. 

It’s where “To the Stars” takes these memorable characters that weakens the film’s dreams of grandiosity, as it dips into familiar suburban drama, and Maggie’s story plays out like many other tales before it. “To the Stars” is a movie that is effectively classic in its presentation, but when it comes to story it lacks a vital freshness.  

Before You Know It” is a refreshing comedy, and not just because of the laughs it provided within the programming it went up against at Sundance this year. Here’s a story that’s not afraid to be silly or tender when the moment calls upon it, while focusing on a hook that’s straight out of a studio comedy—two sisters who live above a theater with their father learn that their mother is not dead, she’s actually a famous soap opera star (Judith Light’s Sherrell). It’s a noteworthy work from an upcoming dynamic duo, co-writers Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock, who have a chemistry that you want to see in more films, especially if they’re like “Before You Know It.” 

Directed by Hannah Pearl Utt with a special feel for character and situational comedy, “Before You Know It” has little gems that keep it a vibrant picture. It boasts top-level on-screen in the acting talents of Utt and Jen Tullock as sisters Rachel and Jackie, respectively, as they touch upon the uniquely funny and painful moments of their situation: the loss of their father (Mandy Patinkin), but also the absurdity of getting to know their mother. With their on-screen emotional fortitude, and the movie’s ease, “Before You Know It” hums with the themes it’s most about—parenthood and responsibility. And it has a delightful performance from Patinkin, who is so delightfully nutty as Rachel and Jackie’s forever-theater-kid father that he’d be a Sundance breakout, if he weren’t Mandy Freakin’ Patinkin. 

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