It is rare in life that people find their calling, let alone two, but if Alexi Pappas ever wants to put a successful career as a long-distance runner behind her, she makes clear in “Tracktown” that she can always fall back on being a movie star. Then again, the fact she was able to take time away from training for the upcoming Rio Games suggests she could do both. With gloriously wide eyes and big, cherubic dimples to go with those toned and tan legs, Pappas has an expressiveness that can’t be taught and though in her very first film performance there are a handful of tentative moments that suggest she’s not entirely comfortable yet as an actress, more often than not it fits with the awkwardness of Plumb, an Oregon track star whose down time with an injury leads to experiencing the world outside of intense training and meticulously measured meals for the first time. It isn’t just her physical muscle that carries “Tracktown” and Pappas’ endearing gawkiness is a huge part of the film’s immense appeal.
Pappas not only stars in the film, but co-wrote and co-directed it with Jeremy Teicher and the duo do well to build the film so thoroughly around her and her hometown of Eugene, which supplies an enchanting eccentricity of its own where hippie communes still exist and thanks to that major shoe manufacturer that goes unnamed, everyone runs, putting incredible pressure on Plumb when she suddenly stops. Just three days away from the Olympic trial finals, she pulls up in a qualifying run with an abstract malady, though as a doctor notes, she hasn’t menstruated in two years and although physically enjoying the kind of health that someone who drinks raw eggs for breakfast and runs for miles shortly after, it seems something’s not right with her heart. While the physician can’t seem to help, other than to suggest rest, there does seem to be someone who can in Sawyer (Chase Offerle), the young man who works at her local bakery. When finally speaking to him longer than to order her usual chocolate chip cookie, Plumb steps out of her comfort zone and begins to experience feelings she hasn’t had before, for better and worse.
Although such a simple premise is stretched out over the course of an hour-and-a-half, “Trackdown” is propelled by its overabundance of charm and the cleverness with which it teases out Plumb’s past involving her slightly overbearing father (Andy Buckley) and her estranged mother (Rachel Dratch), whose absence clearly left a gap in confidence personally that she can only close on the track. Pappas and Teicher are continually finding ways to add depth without weighing down the film, whether it’s Plumb’s recitation of quotes from the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Taylor Swift which she draws on for inspiration, a cute and quirky device at first that grows to serve a poignant purpose later and Jay Wadley’s light but propulsive score that perfectly captures the emotional grace notes that the co-directors take great care not to overemphasize. “Tracktown” is also filled with actors who make what dramatic heavy-lifting there is look effortless, with Buckley and Dratch nicely underplaying Plumb’s imperfect parents and Offerle’s gentle yet charismatic turn as Sawyer giving Plumb a real reason to start thinking of herself.
It would be easy to say “Tracktown” gets all the details right since Pappas has so obviously invested so much of herself into the film, the trophies and ribbons from her youth on display at the film’s outset and all the particulars of her athletic routine there to impress, yet that should include its emotional accuracy, which as much as any other kind, lets it soar. For someone used to winning, Pappas – and Teicher – find a different way to use the adjective with this major crowdpleaser.
“Tracktown” opens on May 12th in limited release, including New York at the Village East and Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center. A full list of theaters is here. It is also available for pre-order on iTunes.