From afar, it didn't seem all that surprising that the inspiring comic drama "Brittany Runs a Marathon" won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Who wouldn't expect those kale-crunching, smoothie-sipping, fitness-fanatic indie film buffs to get excited about a movie on running?

But that's not the case. Oh, the part about the crowd loving their salads, purées and workouts still holds, but it turns out that the movie isn't really about running. In this context, the titular marathon is a metaphor for any difficult life challenge, and the movie is a call for us to confront such hurdles with focus, determination and perseverance.

This isn't nearly as sanctimonious as it sounds. Writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo, a playwright making his first foray into film, could easily have climbed on his cinematic high horse and delivered this message in waves of rah-rah platitudes. But that's not the way things play out. Every lesson learned here is done so the hard way.

When we first meet Brittany (Jillian Bell in her first starring role), she has lost control of her life. (More to the point, she has forfeited control, a distinction she doesn't make at this point.) At 27, her once potential-laden career has gone off the rails, and she hasn't had a romantic relationship — serious or otherwise — for years. She spends her time clubbing with her friends, overeating, getting drunk and popping whatever pills they can finagle.

While seeing a doctor in hopes of tricking him into writing her a prescription for Adderall, she gets some scary news: If she doesn't start taking care of herself, she's headed for some very serious health problems. The doctor suggests she start by losing about 50 pounds.

She can't afford health club dues, so she decides to start running, which she can do in the park for free. The first time out, she manages to make it only one block before teetering on the brink of exhaustion.

But she keeps going out after befriending another struggling newbie, Seth (Micah Stock), who has decided to start running after embarrassing his son by being so out of shape he couldn't handle a three-legged race at preschool. They join a neighborhood running club, where they are taken under the wing of mother-henish Catherine (Michaela Watkins), an experienced runner who has tired of the intensity of the elite runners and has drifted to the back of the pack, where folks like Brittany and Seth chat while they jog.

Feeling cocky after she and Seth finish their first 5K, Brittany lightheartedly suggests that they start training for a marathon. Seth thinks she's crazy, but Catherine thinks she's serious and starts them on a yearlong program to prepare for the New York City Marathon.

As Brittany takes control of her eating, drinking and exercising, she gradually realizes that she needs to do the same with the rest of her life. More important, she realizes that she can do so with the rest of her life. The real journey Brittany faces is not the 26.2 miles of the race but the transition from someone who sees herself as a hapless loser to a person who is confident and capable.

Bell, a former "Saturday Night Live" writer whose résumé includes supporting roles in "22 Jump Street" and "Office Christmas Party," makes the most of her chance to take center stage. Brittany is a shameless smart aleck, but Bell slowly peels away that cheeky facade to reveal that it's actually a defensive mechanism designed to keep other people — as well as herself — from realizing how vulnerable she is.

Colaizzo, who based the script on a friend's true story, lays on the against-all-odds aura a little heavy at times. For narrative tension, he obviously can't have Brittany discover that she's a natural runner who glides through every workout. But this goes completely the other direction, with her grimacing on every step, an approach that radically contradicts the pictures we see during the closing credits of the real Brittany beaming as she runs.

Nonetheless, Colaizzo deserves kudos for avoiding most other plot cliches. Like the course of the New York City Marathon, this story takes some sharp twists and turns. And like the runners, viewers are going to have to strive to keep up.

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392