'Before You Know It': Film Review | Sundance 2019
Hannah Pearl Utt's feature film debut tells the story of a codependent family struggling to run a small New York City theater.
Before You Know It is the kind of film that comes to mind when an exec says, “Men don’t go to see movies about women.” The main character is a lesbian, Rachel (Hannah Pearl Utt, who is also the writer-director of this feature debut). There are multiple scenes about periods, including a discussion of how to insert a tampon. Most of the scenes feature women talking about their feelings, complaining or nagging someone to do something it’s clear they’re never going to do.
Except the film is also exactly the kind of movie that disproves this "logic" that men can’t relate to women-centered movies. By leaning into the character-driven nature of the story and a remarkably yoked ensemble cast, Before You Know It becomes something much more than a “chick flick”: It's a nuanced treatment of how the dynamics that bond a family together can also tear it apart.
Before You Know It is the story of a family that lives above a small community theater that they own in New York City. It’s a comedic drama about a clan of creatives: patriarch and has-been playwright Mel (Mandy Patinkin); his oldest daughter, Jackie (Jen Tullock, whose comedic performance shines), a quirky actress stuck in adolescence and single mother of a 12 year-old named Dodge (Oona Yaffe); and Jackie's sister, Rachel (Utt), the only real grown-up in the family, who holds the family and the theater together and has just a few control issues.
This is a family whose extreme codependence has prevented the adults from ever really having to grow up. Their lives and livelihood revolve around the theater and putting on its mediocre plays, and when Mel’s death reveals the mother they thought was dead is actually alive, Rachel and Jackie are forced out of their comfort zone and onto their own belated coming-of-age journeys in their 30s.
The production design (by Katie Hickman) is a major strength, as the claustrophobic family dynamics are made visual by the cramped apartment the family shares. There is a fantastic shot that finds Rachel looking in her dresser drawer for an item of clothing that she eventually realizes is missing, so she walks in and out of a couple of rooms to find the item balled up on the floor in Jackie’s room and unceremoniously puts it on. This scene happens more than once and it functions like a tour of not only the house, but the way that Rachel feels smothered by her martyrdom in a family that she’s finally starting to grow out of.
Part of the reason Before You Know It is so entertaining is that it feels very familiar, yet the specificity of the world of the family established here elevates the film into something we haven’t seen before. This is a movie that covers wide thematic territory: It’s a drama that takes up serious subjects like death and abandonment but is also very funny, not because of punchlines but because of candor. It’s an actor’s movie (Utt is an actor turned writer-director) — it takes seriously both the craft of acting and the importance of theater — that simultaneously feels like a play within a play. It’s about how the obligations of family can feel burdensome and joyful at the same time. It’s about fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters and moving from codependency to proper boundaries. All these threads could have easily amounted to a jumbled mess, but the distinct and well-developed characters keep that from happening here.
Cue Judith Light, who masterfully portrays Sherrell, the estranged mother of Rachel and Jackie, a television soap actress who is being pushed off her show because of ageism. Light workshopped the character with Utt and Tullock at a Sundance lab before it went into production, and it shows. This is a character that could have easily been mocked or demonized or both, but instead Utt and Tullock’s writing and Light’s uncanny ability to be fully in the present imbues her with the kind of depth we’re not used to seeing in women over 50 on screen.
The characters don’t all work, though. Charles (Mike Colter) plays an accountant and single dad whom Rachel and Jackie force to take care of Dodge when they go in search of answers about their mother. Colter’s performance is promising at first, but unfortunately ends up feeling flat. We know that his character lost his wife in mysterious circumstances that are so painful he goes silent whenever his daughter confronts him about it, but Colter isn’t able to bring much emotional depth to those poignant silences that the film regularly uses to dramatic effect elsewhere — and that’s partly due to missing elements in the script.
Aside from some off-putting musical scoring that feels overly sappy and disconnected from the story, Before You Know It is a strong debut that pushes the boundaries of what movies made from the female gaze can mean to audiences of all kinds.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Judith Light, Mandy Patinkin, Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock, Mike Colter, and Alec Baldwin
Director: Hannah Pearl Utt
Screenwriter: Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock
Executive Producers: Giri Tharan, Mary Jane Skalski, Donna and Kevin Gruneich, Susan and Eric Fredston-Hermann, Robin Bronk and Tim Daly
Co-executive Producers: Michele Turnure-Salleo, Jonathan Duffy, Paula Smith Arrigoni, Alicia Brown
Producers: Mallory Schwartz, Josh Hetzler and James Brown
Co-producer: Kristie Lutz
Director of photography: Jon Keng
Production Designer: Katie Hickman
Editor: Kent Kincannon
Casting: Rori Bergman
Costume designer: Brooke Bennett
Sales: CAA/Endeavor Content