Arts & CultureFilm & TV

Review: Alexi Pappas’ debut film ‘Tracktown’ follows a potential Olympic track athlete coming of age in Eugene

Sports films are almost invariably earnest. Following a team or a single athlete’s journey to victory (whether in competition or otherwise) allows filmmakers to tug at an audience’s heartstrings with ease. Even average films in the genre can generate sobs and cheers.

“Tracktown,” a new sports drama co-directed, co-written and starring former University of Oregon track athlete and Olympian Alexi Pappas, doubles down on this earnestness. Shot on location in Eugene, the film displays a kind, quirky demeanor in both its characters and narrative style, delivering a heartfelt coming-of-age tale within the context of track and field.

The story follows Plum Marigold (Pappas), a 21-year-old long distance runner preparing for the Olympic Trials. Born and raised in Eugene, Plum lives with her father Burt (Andy Buckley), a former track star who lines the walls of their home with Plum’s trophies and medals.

Plum rigidly maintains her daily routine, complete with a meticulously scaled breakfast and a morning run, in preparation for the qualifying round of the trials at the film’s opening. Her struggling, mostly absent mother Gail (Rachel Dratch) is outwardly loving, even if Plum can feel the walls of expectation slowly close in around her. Nearing her final year at college, Plum is athletically gifted but socially awkward and unsure of her plans going forward. Running is truly all she has.

Plum makes it to the finals and has a chance to secure a spot on the U.S. Olympic team but tweaks her leg in the waning stages of the qualifier, forcing her to avoid running for an entire day in preparation for the last round.

What follows is a personal journey of growth, in which Plum comes out of her naive, awkward shell to mature as both a runner and a human being. If that sounds somewhat cliche, Pappas and co-director and writer Jeremy Teicher manage to squeeze enough innocence and hilarity out of the story to save it from its predictable structure.

Plum is a likeable, naive protagonist. She is fun to watch as she confronts her suffocating parents, struggles to maintain her friendship with fellow runner Whitney (Rebecca Friday) and goes on a date with her longtime crush Sawyer (Chase Offerle). A voiceover from Pappas provides inspirational quotes through her journey and offers a peek into the inner workings of her mind.

All the while, the consequences of her “run first, live second” lifestyle manifest themselves in both comedic and serious ways. Plum is so socially stunted that her mannerisms (including her short, rushed phrasing and constant wide-eyed wonderment) evoke that of a small child. It makes the chemistry between her and Sawyer oddly sweet, as the two of them display innocent insecurities and nervousness. Pappas pulls it off wonderfully — a surprise for a first-time screen actress.

When “Tracktown” stumbles, it’s mostly a result of the narrative set-up. Cramming an entire childhood into 48 hours is a logical stretch, even for those used to suspending disbelief for the movies. And the more serious side effects of Plum’s grueling training (it’s been months since her last menstrual cycle and she worries if she’ll be able to have kids) are reduced to offhand, unexplored mentions. The film is content with relying on the naturalism at the story’s core and the relationships between these characters for its pathos, even if the performances of the supporting cast are roundly subpar.

One wishes the film was willing to dig deeper, and tackle the darker parts of obsessively chasing a dream. But to do so would conflict with its honest-to-goodness charm. “Tracktown” lacks an edge, but it’s perfectly okay with that. What matters is learning, step by emotional step, to cross the finish line.

“Tracktown” is playing at the Broadway Metro theater. Tickets are available here.

Watch the trailer below:

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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]