In the 1980s, Nike did a promotional campaign for their jogging shoes called “There Is No Finish Line.” The idea behind the campaign was that, for the serious runner, the process of going out every day to jog wasn’t about trophies—it was about the euphoric, perhaps even spiritual experience of leaving everything else in your life behind and just being in tune with the feeling of your body cutting through the air. That tag line might have just been a way for Nike to sell more shoes, but for the heroine of Sarah Prefers to Run, that philosophy is gospel.
This drama stars Sophie Desmarais as Sarah, a driven, closed-off young woman living in Quebec City. Running is her life in the same way that chess club or the band is for other high school students: an all-consuming passion that has effectively obliterated any semblance of a social life. Thankfully, she’s incredibly talented, attracting the attention of McGill University, which wants her to be part of their competitive middle-distance team. But how can she afford it when her mother (Hélène Florent) won’t financially support her, arguing that running “isn’t going to put food on the table” when she needs a job later in adulthood?
Writer-director Chloé Robichaud, making her feature debut, provides an answer that, in lesser hands, would be the stuff of lame Hollywood romantic-comedy pitches. Sarah’s friend, Antoine (Jean-Sébastien Courchesne), will also be attending McGill and proposes that they get legally married, which would allow them to receive specific college scholarships. There’s no romantic spark between them—they’re doing it purely for mercenary reasons. (This is a good thing considering that, despite being a shy beauty, Sarah always radiates a nervous unease around people, as if she’s just impatiently biding her time until she can go running again.)
It will not surprise anyone that eventually Antoine develops feelings for this woman, but Sarah Prefers to Run complicates matters by populating McGill with another person Sarah knows: Zoey (Geneviève Boivin-Roussy), a fellow middle-distance runner and a semi-friendly competitor of hers. But Sarah’s desire to best this woman slowly, almost imperceptibly begins to evolve into something else—a feeling she can’t quite fathom but is certainly different than any emotion she has for her sham husband.
If this plot description makes Sarah Prefers to Run sound like a romantic triangle mixed with a sports movie, it’s not inaccurate, but Robichaud transcends traditional genres to deliver something far more idiosyncratic and moving. If anything, the movie is a romantic quadrangle, with Sarah weighing her obsession with running against her personal connection to other people. But Robichaud refuses to nail down precisely where Sarah’s heart might end up—appropriate since her heart is also a serious factor in the decision. Diagnosed with a possible arrhythmia, she may need to abandon running for the good of her health. But Sarah isn’t sure if she can bear the thought, and Desmarais is wonderful revealing the panic in her eyes as she tries to fight away any notion that running won’t be the central focus of her life.
As for that title, Sarah Prefers to Run has something of a double meaning. Yes, Sarah prefers running to everything else, but Robichaud suggests that the activity has also become a convenient excuse to avoid the areas of her life that are far thornier. Asked by a college journalist why she runs, Sarah can’t quite articulate an answer—she tends to be stoic even at her happiest—but she finally replies that she loves running because it’s something she can control. Life, unfortunately, doesn’t work that way, and whether it’s her possible heart condition or the stirrings she’s feeling for others or the stirrings others feel for her, she’s lost and wants to escape—run away, if you will.
Sarah Prefers to Run is modest in its construction, but it’s so smartly observed that it feels larger than it is. It wouldn’t be a stretch to compare Sarah’s passion to that of an artist’s, throwing away everything else in the focused pursuit of one’s calling, in part to block out the rest of the world that’s so confusing and painful. There are plenty of artists whose drive didn’t result in a happy ending, and what makes Sarah Prefers to Run so touching is that we’re not quite sure what the resolution will be for Sarah. She isn’t, either. But she just keeps running.
Director: Chloé Robichaud
Writer: Chloé Robichaud
Starring: Sophie Desmarais, Jean-Sébastien Courchesne, Geneviève Boivin-Roussy, Hélène Florent, Micheline Lanctôt
Release Date: Screening in Un Certain Regard at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival