Review: Before You Know It

by Andrew Parker

Overstuffed, but still breezily enjoyable and refreshingly relaxed in its approach, the theatre world-set comedy Before You Know It is a gentle, satisfying bit of entertainment to usher viewers from the warm days of summer and into the chilly autumnal season. This story about diametrically different sisters trying to reconnect with their estranged mother while struggling to keep the family business afloat and sort out their own lives could’ve been a twee, precious, and overwritten bit of fluff, but instead star, director, and co-writer Hannah Pearl Utt’s solo debut feature is a witty, perceptive, and frequently emotional bit of light entertainment. Before You Know It is seasonably appropriate comfort food for intelligent adult audiences; something that’s always in short supply.

Rachel (Utt) has put most of her adult life on pause so she can help out with her family’s independently owned theatre in New York City. Her uncompromising, sometimes flighty father (Mandy Patinkin) seems like he would fall to pieces without Rachel as his stage manager, and her single-mother sister, Jackie (co-writer Jen Tullock), is even more scatterbrained. The theatre has fallen on hard times as of late, and circumstances arise that could force them to sell or shutter the family business for good. Complications arise when Rachel and Jackie learn that the theatre is half owned by their mother, Sherrell (Judith Light). Rachel and Jackie were told by their father that mom was dead, but she turns out to be very much alive and working as a successful soap opera actress on a show that’s about to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. Partially out of curiosity and desire for closure, and partially out of a necessity to ensure the livelihood of the theatre, the sisters reach out to their estranged parent.

Character studies set in the theatre world are tricky to pull off, mostly because the personalities in play are so… well, theatrical. Utt and Tullock find an easy way around this by making sure that the idiosyncrasies of each of the characters contributes in some way to the story in play instead of merely seeming like a bunch of people who can’t stop acting long enough to get their lives in order. Before You Know It is a tale of motherly and sisterly bonds – not just between the protagonists and their mom, but also between Jackie and her increasingly vexed teenage daughter, Dodge (Oona Yaffe, a bright newcomer) – but one where each of them have issues that need working out before those ties can be strengthened and nurtured.

Utt gives a great leading performance as a woman who resents her family, while simultaneously bending over backwards to accommodate their every need and whim. Light gets her best role in years as a successful woman who doesn’t realize that some see her as the villain in her kids’ story. Tullock is particularly revelatory as the intelligent, but ditzy sister who craves attention to an unhealthy degree (building to a disastrous red carpet moment when visiting her mother at an afterparty) and is slowly starting to realize that she has been a burden to both Rachel and her own child. The dynamic between the three leads is outstanding, never forced, and always steered heavily and confidently towards intimate moments and telling pauses rather than battering the viewer with rapid fire repartee. It’s a welcome approach that’s wonderfully performed, and one that runs counter to most films set within a community of people who never quite got their big shot at Broadway legitimacy. A lot of that could be chalked up to the female perspective, but most of it comes from the overwhelming amount of thought and care that has gone into the core relationships.

The only downside to Before You Know It is the abundance of side plots happening within the margins that don’t add or detract much from what the main cast is already doing. Mike Colter gives a warm and humble performance as a single father and accountant who’s helping the sisters out with the family finances and looking after Dodge while Jackie is running around, but his character (and Dodge, for that matter) sometimes feels like an afterthought, and moments when we check in to see what he’s up to are largely superfluous and out of place. Alec Baldwin pops up for a small, even more unnecessary role as Dodge’s psychiatrist, whom Jackie happens to be sleeping with. There’s a running gag about some old guys waiting outside the theatre to come inside and audition, but it also doesn’t add much and feels left over from an earlier, longer draft. Anything that isn’t directly pertaining to the sisters and their estranged mom isn’t bad, but it’s underdeveloped in comparison, throwing the Before You Know It out of alignment whenever these story threads compete for screen time.

But the key distinction to take away from that criticism is that none of Before You Know It is bad. It’s just not as assured as it could be. Although Utt has worked as a collaborating director before, Before You Know It bears a lot of first time filmmaking jitters and casual missteps, but at least the filmmaker and her closest collaborators have made sure that the story and the characters hold enough water to stay afloat. Buoyant is a good word to describe Before You Know It. It’s light entertainment, but emotionally it will get viewers where they need to be.

Before You Know It opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, Sudbury Indie Cinemas in Sudbury, and Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon on Friday, September 20, 2019. It expands to Vancity Theatre in Vancouver and The Vic Theatre in Victoria on October 18.

Check out the trailer for Before You Know It:

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