First, Believe in Yourself: a movie review of Run Woman Run

Beck, a woman of indeterminate age (possibly between 28-35), in a slouchy bathrobe with a pizza motif, drives to the mailbox at the end of her not-long driveway, a cigarette hanging from her mouth. The scene is set for this story of a single mother who has lost her way following the death of her own mother a few years earlier. She lives in her father’s basement. Shares a bed and late-night cookies with her son (also of indeterminate age between 10-14). And fights with her younger sister, who has just earned her certificate to teach their mother’s native tongue, Kanyen’kéha (the Mohawk language) and is moving out of the family home to fuel her independence. Meanwhile, Beck fuels herself on donuts and 5-sugar-5-cream coffees. Even after she suffers a diabetic coma, Beck has trouble finding reasons to take care of herself. Until she’s visited by the ghost of her distant ancestor, the legendary marathon runner Tom Longboat, the first Indigenous runner to win the Boston Marathon in 1907 (60 years later, Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to run Boston). Longboat becomes Beck’s running coach. And running, of course, is a metaphor for Beck’s belief in herself, and not just herself, but also her heritage.  

Movie poster for Run Woman Run, showing Beck eating donuts in her pizza bathrobe, with a wall calendar behind her featuring Tom Longboat.

Run Woman Run braids together the threads of Beck’s unwillingness to face the reality of her health; Longboat’s dry humour and encouragement, as he guides her toward her running heritage; and her rediscovery of the gift of her mother’s language. I was about to write, “slowly, Beck learns to believe in herself again.” But actually, things happen in movie time. The film flirts with cliché, as Beck determines to train for her first marathon in one month. There is the anticipated montage of training scenes, rain or shine. The loneliness. The despair. The hope. There’s a cute scene of Beck getting tangled up in her first running bra. That still happens to me sometimes, when the straps get too fancy. There’s the how-will-she-ever scene where Beck is driven to the finish line of her first 10k in a golf cart. And there’s the inevitable disbelief of her family.

Beck perseveres. A short month later she runs 26.2 miles alone (well, with the ghost of Longboat and the felt pen drawings and names of kin she’s covered her arms and chest with to remind her of who she is running for–more on that in a moment), on a course she’s mapped out herself, starting and ending at her father’s house. At the finish line, aka the mailbox she once drove to in her pizza bathrobe, she is greeted by her family with love and hugs. The romance hinted at halfway through the movie fizzles, as it should. Beck must believe in herself first.

While I didn’t love the film, I appreciated the quiet victory, the characters (each one of whom was just trying their best) and the gentle touch with the trauma at the core of the film.

And, there was one element that frustrated me. It is this: what finally motivates Beck to start running is when her son moves out to live with his father again  Her son can’t bear the fear of waking up again beside his mother in a diabetic coma. Before each training run, Beck writes Eric on her heart and shoulder and arm to remind her of why she’s running  As a woman without children, I wonder, what does a woman without children do? How does she find the will to live after tragedy?

As I mentioned, on “marathon day”, Beck draws felt tip pen tattoos all over her arms, to represent each person she is running for. It’s Longboat who has to remind her that she also needs to run for herself.

Indeed. Why do women always have to be pushing themselves for others and never for themselves? Are they, as individuals in their own right, not worth it? I don’t mean that we should not desire to serve others and the world. I believe that we are here to offer our contribution. And yet, I want, too, that women value themselves. I wanted Beck to run because she was worth saving, not just because she was someone’s mother and her son needed her. I have a dream that women have worth far beyond their parental status (just as men have always had). I’ve written about my own choice not to have children here.

Despite this sticky element, I still enjoyed the film. The Facebook page describes the film this way: Run Woman Run is the Indigenous comedy that hits your funny bone the way a donut hits your blood sugar. I didn’t experience the film as quite that much of a jolt. I’d describe it more as an apple—a sustained healthful energy. I learned that Kanyen’kéha has no word for “empty,” which continues to fascinate me. Contemplating a worldview without emptiness is mind expanding.

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a list of how to stream. Support women in film! And if you watch or you’ve already watched. I’d love to know your thoughts.

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