By Liam Lacey
Ingratiating, messy, and sporadically amusing, the American indie dramedy Before You Know It aims for that poignant-screwball sweet spot of celebrated television series like Arrested Development or Transparent. Developed through the Sundance lab, the film stars director Hannah Pearl Utt and her co-writer Jen Tullock who landed some marquee talent (Alec Baldwin, Mandy Patinkin, Judith Light) at the script stage, an indication of its potential.
The story focuses on thirtyish co-dependent adult sisters from a New York theatrical family: Earnest, responsible, control freak and non-practicing lesbian Rachel, played by Utt, and her kooky, boozy, sister Jackie, played by Tullock. The siblings' differences are not communicated subtly. Rachel dresses like she's about to enter a religious order, Jackie, like she's trying to land the role of Frenchie in Grease.
They share an over-stuffed apartment above the tiny Gurner Family Theater in Greenwich Village with their anti-conformist, ill-tempered playwright dad, Mel Gurner (Patinkin, excessive) and Jackie's precociously insightful (of course), 12-year-old daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe). For years, the sisters have helped their father mount his unsuccessful plays, Rachel as the script-editor and stage-manager, Jackie as an actress.
Upon Mel's abrupt death in the first act, the sisters discover that the building is co-owned by the mom they had long thought was dead. The actress Sherrell (Light) is alive and thriving as a diva star on a long-running soap opera. Jackie sets out to meet their mother and drags Rachel along to the soap opera set, which, for some reason, they decide to visit undercover. As they begin to learn about each other, Sherell finds a reason to bond with her estranged daughter: Rachel can help improve the writing on her soap.
While the sisters are exploring their maternity issues, the script jams in a couple of subplots. Jackie leaves daughter Dodge in the care of a recently acquired single-dad accountant (Mike Colter, of TV’s Luke Cage), and his daughter, Olivia. Meanwhile, Baldwin, as one of Jackie’s exes, plays an inept child therapist, and has a two-scene cameo.
Typical of a certain kind of Sundance feelie comedy, Before You Know It is both promising and exasperating enough you’ll probably leave the cinema thinking of ways it could be improved: Drop the hangnail subplots, rein in performances that bounce from confession to caricature and, in short, focus more on the why and less on the whimsy.
Before You Know It. Directed by Hanna Pearl Utt. Written by Hanna Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock. Starring Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock, Judith Light, Mike Colter, Oona Yaffe, Mandy Patinkin and Alec Baldwin. Opens September 20 in Toronto (TIFF Bell Lightbox), Sudbury (Sudbury Indie Cinema), and Saskatoon (Broadway Theatre); and October 18 in Barrie (Barrie Film Festival), Vancouver (Vancity Theatre), and Victoria (The Vic Theatre).