Had you wandered into Tracktown, the debut by writer, star and co-director Pappas, right before Sawyer shifted from flirty to creepy, you might think you tuned into some weirdly twee indie take on Martian Child. Plumb is beset with wild hair and googly eyes. Her head seems screwed atop a fat-free, muscular body. She sleeps in a plastic bubble and subsists on piles of meat, raw eggs and chocolate chip cookies. When confronted with ice cream, she promptly sprinkles it with protein powder. She robotically quotes platitudes as if wired into a server full of nothing but motivational desk calendars. But she's no alien.
Though often overreaching, Pappas is most effective when focusing on Plumb's personal relationships, especially with her father (The Office's Andy Buckley), a local track coach who tends to her every need despite Plumb's fraught emotional state. That's compounded by personal and professional setbacks: injuring a leg days before the final Olympic team tryouts, and the sudden return of her estranged mom (SNL alum Rachel Dratch). Forced by a faceless doctor to take a day off from running after an injury, she sets about an existential journey of self-discovery. Consider it Cléo From 5 to 7 filtered through Miranda July, a little Lena Dunham and a shitload of Gatorade.
Tracktown offers its most compelling moments when Plumb and her party-girl teammate (Rebecca Friday) go through their doldrums in an eye-popping, state-of-the-art training facility seemingly ripped from a sci-fi dreamscape. When it comes to the core romance, though, it deflates. There are great elements throughout, particularly Plumb's Last Temptation-esque thoughts of leaving a lifetime of work for what she believes is love, no thanks to Sawyer's manipulative douchebaggery. But neither the meet-cutes nor the performances are strong enough to make it feel like anything but a distraction from the bigger issues the film tries, and often succeeds, to tackle.
Pappas seems to realize there's only so much mileage (sorry) you can get out of racing, and instead focuses on the humanity of a woman whose insecurities with her body and lost youth come to the fore on a rare day when her focus strays, tempting her to leave behind all that she's worked for to get to something resembling normal. In that regard, she's far less alien than she appears.
Critic's Rating: 2/4 stars.
SEE IT: Tracktown opens Thursday at Clinton Street Theater.