Before You Know It
2019, NR, 98 min. Directed by Hannah Pearl Utt. Starring Jen Tullock, Hannah Pearl Utt, Mandy Patinkin, Oona Yaffe, Judith Light, Mike Colter, Alec Baldwin.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 6, 2019
It takes a particular kind of pointed passivity to be a stage manager, to be prepared to deal with the demands of artistic types. Those pressures are multiplied for Rachel (writer, director, and star Utt), who is also dealing with a fairly dysfunctional family – which happens to be that very same theatre troupe. Daddy Mel (Patinkin) is a jaded old playwright, a onetime enfant terrible who's still writing and still performing and still acting out. Meanwhile, her sister Jackie (Tullock) is a hyperkinetic, self-obsessed heir to his legacy. All the while Rachel is trying to keep their New York neighborhood theatre open while flailing through her own personal life. She gets dates with nice women, she's putting herself out there, but she always pulls back, never able to find a way to put herself first. The roles in her family are set, and she knows what her part is. That is, right up until a bombshell drops, and everything they thought was set in stone ripples and changes forever.
Before You Know It feels like it fell out of the mid-Eighties – and that's not a bad thing. In the tradition of Mystic Pizza or Moscow on the Hudson, it finds its humor in the light and shade of its characters, with the odd broader gag (especially from Tullock, who is unafraid to go big with Jackie's theatrical habits). There's something a little quaint and charmingly antiquated about a dramedy about an theatrical family on the brink of bankruptcy who finds out that supposedly deceased mommy dearest works in soaps – especially when the family theatre is so off-off-off-off-Broadway that there's plenty of space for long tracking shot conversations down Brooklyn sidewalks and past Manhattan brownstones, chatting about everything and nothing. Rachel plays hard into that period feel, dressed like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club and so out of contact with everyday modern life that a date has to explain negging to her.
Yet, like a lot of Eighties indie films, there's an odd unwieldiness due to shambling subplots – none of which aren't fun, but none of which add anything overall to the rest of the story. Potshots at the absurd and misogynistic world of TV are well-placed, but feel like they fell in from another, less heartfelt film. Similarly, Yaffe excels as Dodge, Jackie's daughter, as she tries to make her own way with an emotionally absent parent. However, her storylines – therapy sessions with an awkward shrink (Baldwin in an unnecessary cameo) or getting babysat by the family accountant (Colter) – feel like they should be their own film, not bolted on like a sitcom B-plot.
That never stops the core, bittersweet story from tugging on the heartstrings at all the right moments. Utt's script raises all-too-recognizable questions about what family means and when it's OK to change your closest relationships, but knows the audience is too canny for pat answers. Its emotional resolution feels natural and earned, even if it takes a few too many stops and changes on the subway to get there.