LA Film Fest 2016: Tracktown, by David Bax
An indie comedy about a young, female Olympian who’s the star of her home town? Don’t worry. Those of you still scarred by The Bronze can breathe easy. Alexi Pappas and Jeremy Teicher’s Tracktown may possess some of the quirks of that other movie along with its loose overlap in premise but it’s a far better and more emotionally honest work.
Pappas also stars (she and Teicher share the screenwriting credit) as Plumb Marigold, a 21 year old runner who has been working nearly all her life to make the US Olympic track team. We learn this about her in the opening scenes where we are introduced to her routine (raw egg, protein powder, a lot of running) as well as the main players in her life, such as fellow athlete and best friend Whitney (Rebecca Friday) and her father, Burt (Andy Buckley), both of whom relate to Plumb almost exclusively through running. By the time we’re ten minutes in, Pappas and Teicher have already given us a stellar track competition sequence full of focus and tension, after which Plumb has made it through the preliminary qualifying round. Now she has three days until the finals that will determine who makes the team. But, due to a minor muscle issue, her doctor insists that she take one of those days off. Suddenly, Plumb, a creature of habit, finds herself with a full day to do things she’s never done and talk to people she’s never met.
Clearly, there is some contrivance to this set-up but Tracktown earns it with a dedication to verisimilitude in all depictions of running itself. It helps that Pappas herself is not just a runner but an Olympian (she will run for Greece in the 2016 games). The full body shots of Plumb training make it clear that Pappas is in great shape. And the shots of disembodied legs, feet and glutes in motion before and during a race lend a precise yet poetic feel for the act of running not for fun or exercise but to compete and win.
Plumb is as idiosyncratic as her name and, at times, Pappas’ performance threatens to become overly mannered. But she rescues herself repeatedly with honest insight and pathos. Plumb may be an incredibly accomplished and capable young woman but is often unsure of herself in arenas other than the track. This is particularly true when it comes to her existence as a feminine being whose personal ambitions and definitions of self are misaligned with the expectations of society. When a doctor tries to bring up the idea that her physical regimen may make it more difficult to have children by saying, “You’re still a woman,” the connection between womanhood and reproduction does not immediately occur to Plumb, who responds, “What does that matter?” Later, in a romantic moment, she covers herself up and heartbreakingly says, “I’m strong. It’s gross.” Tracktown doesn’t just work as a character-based narrative. It’s also an object lesson in the fact that there are infinite different ways to be a woman, no matter how firmly drawn the gender lines sometimes seem to be.
Plumb may not be defined solely by her gender but her self-identity is still wrapped up in an external construct. Her routine is so rigid that it’s impossible for her to separate herself from it. “I’m not a person who skips things,” she defensively proclaims. And, despite the presence of Whitney, there are implications that Plumb has more in common with the ants in the window ant farm she keeps in her altitude-tented bedroom. Maybe it’s a case of arrested development or obsessive compulsive disorder or some other cocktail of psychological and emotional issues but, whatever it may be, Tracktown has far more going on and a far more resonant protagonist than any other Olympic-themed indie comedies you might be able to name.