Directed by Hannah Pearl Utt
Written by Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock
Starring Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock, and Linda Arroz
by Ryan Smillie
Typically, you’d be disappointed if you watched a soap opera looking for any kind of nuanced portrayal of family dynamics. Stolen babies, evil twins, or medically inaccurate bouts of amnesia? Sure. But a thoughtful look into what happens after the stolen baby is returned or when the evil twin is exposed? Not exactly what All My Children trafficked in.
Luckily, Hannah Pearl Utt’s debut feature, Before You Know It, a meta-soap operatic riff on a conventional Manhattan dysfunctional family dramedy, gives us both. A Days of Our Lives-worthy twist sees the eccentric Gurner family thrown into even more chaos than usual when sisters Rachel and Jackie learn that their mother is not dead, as they’ve been led to believe, but is actually a soap opera star.
Utt stars as Rachel, the beleaguered stage manager of her family’s theater and her family - regularly wrangling and placating her immature playwright father Mel (Mandy Patinkin), her impulsive and overdramatic actress sister Jackie (Jen Tullock, who co-wrote the screenplay with Utt), and her quiet but opinionated niece Dodge (Oona Yaffe). When Mel dies suddenly, a review of his property records leads them to their mother, the very much alive and (one assumes) at least moderately successful Sherrell Ghearhardt (Judith Light).
Utt and Tullock’s script breezes through some of the more outlandish plot points, much to the film’s betterment. Who cares about how Rachel and Jackie went nearly 30 years without realizing their mother was a mildly famous actress when the point is how her reintroduction affects them? Relationships are sketched deftly - a few minutes of screen time are all we need to learn everything we need to know about Mel’s relationship with both of his daughters - but the characters themselves could stand to be drawn out a bit more.
Rachel and Sherrell in particular seem like they could have benefited from more character development, or, more accurately, more exploration of the characters that had clearly been developed. Utt and Light overcome the brisk 99-minute run-time as best they can with layered performances suggesting decades of backstory only implied to us. When Rachel chastises a soap opera producer for wanting to write Sherrell off of her show, telling him that younger audiences want to see dynamic older (but not too old, as Sherrell interjects) women, I found myself in complete agreement, especially when said woman is Judith Light. It’s a shame, however, that we don’t get to dive into her character more.
Clearly influenced by the masters of messy New York City families - Noah Baumbach, Nicole Holofcener, Tamara Jenkins, and, yes, Woody Allen - Utt’s direction is assured, if not groundbreaking. The twee indie pop and couple of jaunty jazz numbers that pop up throughout the film seem beamed in directly from her filmmaking forebears (the less said about the truly unfortunate Mandy Patinkin original we’re subjected to toward the beginning, the better). Utt’s cinematic vision of New York is comforting, recognizable, and approaching something unique.
All in all, Before You Know It is a delightfully absurd and heartfelt debut. Even with the aforementioned characterization issues and perhaps a bit too much plot, Utt emerges as a talent to keep an eye on. And with a half-hour dramedy, Sweet Relief, currently in development for Sundance Now, it’s possible we’ll be seeing more of her work sooner than later.