Before You Know It (2019)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Finding success at Sundance, Before You Know It is a female-driven dramedy about loss, reconnection, and finding comedy in some of life’s challenges.
Hannah Pearl Utt co-wrote, directed, and stars here, and leads a terrific ensemble of actors through her second feature film.
Set in and around small, contemplative moments, Before You Know It should speak to those who seek out new voices in independent cinema.
This might all play a little bit forgettable, by the time it works through its steps.
There’s quite a bit going on here, and the film’s ambition in exploring so much may snuff out the intended purpose of engaging some viewers on an emotional level.
Someone described this to me as “First World Problems Cinema.” Well, some of us can likely relate to some of what’s happening here, I kind of understand the comparison.
If we take anything away from indie dramedy Before You Know It, likely it will be the discovery of the film’s multi-talented director, co-writer, and lead actor, Hannah Pearl Utt. Utt, directing her second feature, shines alongside writing partner and co-star Jen Tullock in an indie, with big ambitions.
Set in and around a family business - a small, local community theater located underneath their brownstone - Utt plays Rachel, a stage manager for the playhouse, while sister Jackie (Tullock) is a single mother to teenage daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe). Borne from the success realized by their father’s fleeting Broadway success in the early 1970’s, the theater is flailing - drawing small houses and struggling to find fresh faces to act in father Mel’s productions.
Mel, portrayed by veteran actor Mandy Patinkin, is depicted as a shell of his former self but still hooked on the rush of performance. Unfortunately, after a family dispute turns ugly, Mel passes away from a sudden heart attack. The stress amplifies, and a smarmy probate lawyer reveals that the theater is actually owned by a popular daytime soap opera star Sherrell (Judith Light, terrific). It does not take long for the sisters to realize that Sherrell is actually their mother, and then the confusion really intensifies.
Before You Know It starts to feel episodic in the way it maneuvers through the scenes where Rachel and Jackie confront, meet, and learn to live with Sherrell in their lives. Though it moves briskly, Utt and Tullock craft a movie that never bores, as it explores the emotions of the stress and strain family relationships can create, as well as why the moments we have with those closest to us should never be taken for granted.
The performances are all top notch, including Yaffe’s turn as Dodge. She is great in a couple of awkward scenes with her therapist (Alec Baldwin, in a two-scene cameo), and maximizes her screen time effectively.
Though somewhat contrived, she spins off into a subplot of her own. While Jackie spends much of her time consumed with interacting with Sherrell, Dodge is befriended by a family accountant (Mike Colter) and his teenage daughter (Arica Himmel). The two teenagers become friends, and Dodge receives something of sisterly guidance her mother simply cannot provide for her.
Utt and Tullock have great chemistry on and off-screen, as you can almost hear their script ideas being generated in real time. Long-time collaborators, their film feels stage-ready in its cadence and presentation. If Utt’s direction, in terms of look and feel is relatively unremarkable, her pacing and handling of tone is consistent and engaging.
Though I must admit, despite liking elements of this quite a bit, Before You Know It struggles to really stick. We listen, we contemplate, we may even relate. Certainly the loss of a parent can spiral someone’s emotions out of control. Reconnecting with family you never knew existed is something worth exploring. The ease with which those closest to us can manipulate our emotions has been fertile ground for so many family-based dramatic films, books, and stories.
And Utt and Tullock cover all of this with depth and compassion.
However, this also feels like something that would play out better in a limited series. For everything Utt and Tullock explore, other developments are given rather short-shrift. When Sherrell plays favorites with her two “new” daughters, the film only scratches the surface of the emotions that situation would likely generate.
Some other emotional reaches do not quite land, because, even at 98 minutes, the film feels truncated and a bit hurried when the subplots begin to intertwine and come together. The comedy is more amusing, down-to-earth, than outright hilarious. It’s hard to not wish this film still went even more deeper.
Before You Know It was clearly a labor of love for all involved. And as good as this can be at times, with the talent clearly on display, you walk away appreciative of the film, but wanting more conviction behind its explorations, as the statements it wants to make would truly leave the emotional resonance Utt and Tullock were looking for.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock, Judith Light, Mandy Patinkin, Oona Yaffe, Mike Colter, Arica Himmel, Ayden Mayeri, Alec Baldwin, Tim Daly, Ben Becher.
Director: Hannah Pearl Utt
Written by: Jen Tullock, Hannah Pearl Utt
Release Date: August 30, 2019