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Sundance Film Review: ‘Before You Know It’

A death in a theatrical family excavates a long-MIA parent in this diverting but awkward mix of farce and feeliness.

Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock
Sundance Film Festival

A case of quirkiness overload, “Before You Know It” is about two sisters — one sane, the other comically nutty — dealing with a radical shakeup in the family. That dynamic runs through the entire film, in which annoying characters behaving irrationally exasperate everyone else, sometimes including the viewer. This feature directorial debut for Hannah Pearl Utt, who co-stars with co-writer Jen Tullock, is a diverting yet awkward mix of farcical elements and earnest feeliness. The two never quite gel, and it’s hard to care about the nice characters who somewhat improbably put up with wildly insufferable ones. There’s some invention and good humor here, yet the whole feels inorganic.

Utt plays Rachel, a 30-ish New York City native. She works as stage manager for her family’s tiny Village legit theater not so much out of love as grim duty — if she left, everything would surely fall apart. Older sister Jackie (Tullock) is a manic ditz of a permanently-aspiring actress. It’s a good thing her fatherless 12-year-old daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe) seems to have a good head on her shoulders, because she certainly isn’t inheriting one from mom. Nor from patriarch Mel (Mandy Patinkin), whose apparent sole moment of professional glory took place in 1971. Since then he’s written, directed, and starred in 50 plays staged right here in the black box beneath the clan’s brownstone home. Plays that were, perhaps deservedly, seen by no one. But that only heightened his overbearing self-image as a maverick flying against the craven theatrical establishment.

After he goes out of his way to blow the potential late-career break Rachel has painstakingly orchestrated for him, she’s fed up. Her brief tirade has the unfortunate effect of truly ending dad’s career, with a fatal heart attack. The sisters soon discover his will hasn’t been updated in ages, and that their home/business building is now owned by the mother he’d always told them was dead. But in fact she’s very much alive, in the larger-than-life form of veteran daytime soap star Sherrell (Judith Light). Filter-free Jackie soon forces their company on this shocked diva at the show’s Manhattan studio. They initially bond, but Sherell soon transfers her fickle (and hitherto nonexistent) maternal attentions to the wary Rachel, if only because the latter proves a good script doctor.

Meanwhile, the perpetually forgotten-about Dodge gets locked out of their home with Charles (Mike Colter of “Marvel’s Luke Cage”), the accountant hired to sort out the family’s dire financial situation. He takes her home to meet his own single-parented daughter, 13-year-old Olivia (Arica Himmel), and the two girls instantly get along.

The co-writing leads met in the Manhattan theater world, and their film is often reminiscent of those Off Broadway comedies with a heart of gold (“Happy Birthday Gemini,” “Thieves,” etc.) that almost invariably came off forced and theatrical on celluloid. Not that “Before You Know It” doesn’t try to be visually entertaining: It’s got a colorful look, with nice, character-accentuating contributions from production designer Katie Hickman and costumier Brooke Bennett. Things move along briskly and have an amusing air, even if that doesn’t often translate into actual laughs.

But this is one of those performer-created projects in which no one was apparently around to mention that indulging actors doesn’t always pay off. Tullock, Light, and Patinkin really throw themselves into their roles, only these characters are so caricatured and obnoxious that audiences may recoil from the impact. Each must have seemed howlingly great on set. Onscreen, they’re just too much, with Light coiffed and clad so garishly you might initially assume she’s meant to be a drag queen. There are some funny if broad bits of business around the soap-opera production, including a cameo for producer Tim Daly. Alec Baldwin inserts some drollery in a pair of scenes as a psychiatrist.

But “Before You Know It” also ultimately wants us to take seriously the emotion needs of these characters, and that is asking too much. It doesn’t even make sense that level-headed Rachel wouldn’t have bolted from her toxic father and sister long ago, perhaps taking Dodge with her. (Similarly, Charles and Olivia don’t seem to belong in this cartoonish universe at all.) And why don’t the siblings simply ask their long-missing, presumed-dead mother to sign over building ownership in the first place — or at least explain her three-decade absence? The enjoyable elements here can’t help but be compromised by those that are shrill and/or just poorly thought-out.

Clearly the minds behind “Before You Know It” have talent, but next time, they might want to bring in some outside perspective. The end result has the unmistakable feel of being made by collaborators who’ve amused each other for so long they no longer grasp that a wider audience may find that humor too grating, in-jokey, and divorced from the real world they nonetheless think they’ve shoehorned in. All the world is not a stage, really — yet these characters’ artificiality would be more at home on one.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Before You Know It’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 28, 2019. Running time: 98 MIN.

  • Production: An El Dorado, Lifeboat presentation, in association with Ball & Chain Productions. (Int'l sales: Endeavor Content, Los Angeles.) Producers: Mallory Schwartz, Josh Hetzler, James Brown. Executive producers: Giri Tharan, Mary Jane Skalski, Donna and Kevin Gruneich, Susan Fredston-Hermann, Eric Fredston-Hermann, Robin Bronk, Tim Daly. Co-producer: Kristie Lutz.
  • Crew: Director: Hannah Pearl Utt. Screenplay: Utt, Jen Tullock. Camera (color, HD): Jon Keng. Editor: Kent Kincannon. Music: Ryan Tullock.
  • With: Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock, Judith Light, Mike Colter, Oona Yaffe, Arica Himmel, Peter Jacobsen, Blake Berris, Mandy Patinkin, Alec Baldwin, Tim Daly, Ayden Mayeri.
  • Music By: