Review: Before You Know It finds new edge to family dysfunction

Movie Review: Before You Know It

Soap opera star Judith Light plays to her strengths as an actress who gave up her two daughters to pursue her career, only to be reunited as an awkward family in later life. Director, actor and co-writer Hannah Pearl Utt finds a female way of communicating — wrapped in apology and accusation — that gives the unconvincing plot a jolt of novelty that serves the larger purpose.

Before You Know It

3.5/5

Starring: Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock, Judith Light, Mandy Pantinkin, Alec Baldwin

Directed by: Hannah Pearl Utt

Running time: 1 hr 38 mins

Rating: 14A

By Katherine Monk

Taking a page from Lena Dunham, who told a weird personal family story in Tiny Furniture and laid the foundation for Girls, New York theatre nerds Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock combine their family baggage and ambient anxieties to knit a dysfunctional family yarn that’s already put them on a whole new star skein.

Before You Know first broke out at Sundance earlier this year, where co-writer and director Pearl Utt explained what prompted the self-penned debut. She said the whole thing started when she and Tullock met at a birthday party. They didn’t understand each other, and had no interest in trying. Yet, everything changed when they ended up as servers on the same shift. They realized they were opposite sides of the same coin, knee-deep in a conflicted intimacy that translated perfectly to the world of sisterhood — and Before You Know It was born.

The story of two sisters who love each other, yet find themselves competing for parental affection and affirmation, the film plays to familiar movie motifs. It’s a dysfunctional family story set in New York City’s theatre world, figures outsider characters as the leads, and focuses on the consequences of an old lie long accepted as truth.

The story of two sisters who love each other, yet find themselves competing for parental affection and affirmation, the film plays to familiar movie motifs. It’s a dysfunctional family story set in New York City’s theatre world…

Rachel (Utt) and Jackie (Tullock) grew up with their playwright dad (Mandy Patinkin), who told them their mother died when they were young. Yet, when a tragedy strikes, the 30-something siblings learn the woman who gave them life is still alive. In fact, she’s more than alive. She’s famous, having starred as the lead on a soap opera for the past three decades.

Judith Light chews the juicy part of prodigal mother with a concentrated degree of self-consciousness as she attempts to become a nurturing, maternal force overnight. It’s almost painful to watch someone try so hard to be a caring parent after completely ignoring their responsibilities, but the awkwardness is matched by the girls — who suddenly find themselves vying for their mother’s affection, even though they barely know her.

The script captures the edges of the internal drama within each character without asking them to say everything out loud — until the soft-spoken climax spills all the feelings onto the floor, where the characters walk around each other’s mess, almost apologizing for being honest.

It’s such a female way of communicating that it gives the film a whole other facet, adding depth to what often feels like a lukewarm tub of predictable scenarios geared around barbed sarcasm and sibling jealousy. You know, it’s the kind of stuff you see in almost every dysfunctional family movie set in New York: intellectuals gathering in a chic loft for red wine and clever conversation, a struggling playwright who believes he’s finally articulating something important, bookish types trying to seduce each other with literary references and at least one clearly defined moment of character rebellion.

The script captures the edges of the internal drama within each character without asking them to say everything out loud — until the soft-spoken climax spills all the feelings onto the floor, where the characters walk around each other’s mess, almost apologizing for being honest.

Honestly, the big dramatic centre isn’t all that compelling. It isn’t even all that well executed. When the girls find out their mom is alive and a soap star, it prompts a series of less-than-believable actions to put the trio together. Much of it feels forced, or emotionally disconnected to the events, which means we have to hook on to something smaller to reap the most enjoyment.

For me, it was watching the women work off each other, finding the right balance between the words coming out of their characters’ mouths, and the unspoken truths they were still holding in their hearts. The threads of communication are constantly getting tangled in female fears, and most of them are based in the eyes of others: What will people think if I do this? Also, what will I think of myself if I do this?

Utt said the greatest debate of her life has been: “What do I owe to others? And what do I owe myself?” Before You Know It reflects all the see-sawing between selfish needs and altruistic urges, between being a resentful child looking for acknowledgement of past suffering and a true grown-up able to own all the feelings, and generously move forward with love.

Not that either side is in any way clearly defined. The whole struggle — in fact, the whole movie — comes across as a neurotic blur of words and actions. But that’s its charm, because it captures the everyday confusion of being human, wrestling with the petty hurts while struggling to be a better, happier, loving person.

Not that either side is in any way clearly defined. The whole struggle — in fact, the whole movie — comes across as a neurotic blur of words and actions. But that’s its charm, because it captures the everyday confusion of being human…

Utt and Tullock are believable characters, steeped in unflattering idiosyncrasies as well as redeeming quirks. They both feel recognizable, and chances are, you’ll feel like you know people just like these two — a little needy, and a little neurotic — but give them just a light shower of love, and before you know it, they’re blooming as fast and as colourfully as desert flowers.

@katherinemonk

Main image (above): Hannah Pearl Utt, Judith Light and Jen Tullock star in Before You Know It.
THE EX-PRESS, October 18, 2019

To read more movie reviews by Katherine, check out the Ex-Press archive or sample career work at Rotten Tomatoes.

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Summary

3.5Score

Soap opera star Judith Light plays to her strengths as an actress who gave up her two daughters to pursue her career, only to be reunited as an awkward family in later life. Director, actor and c0-writer Hannah Pearl Utt finds a female way of communication -- wrapped in apology and accusation -- that gives the unconvincing plot a jolt of novelty that serves the larger purpose. -- Katherine Monk

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