Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. 1091 Media releases the film on Friday, August 30.
While exact figures are not (currently) available, it stands to reason that every Sundance Film Festival has played home to at least one film that includes a major character uttering some version of the arrested development-centric chestnut, “I need to learn how to be an adult.” Ostensible grownups learning how to be actual grownups has long been a major theme of many film festival offerings, and Sundance is no exception to that seemingly mandatory programming rule.
And yet Hannah Pearl Utt’s feature directorial debut, “Before You Know It,” is an exception. A quirky, slightly off-kilter feature about a wacky family and the stunted people who populate it, the basic bones of “Before You Know It” sound like innumerable other American indies that have made their way through the festival world. Bolstered by Utt’s wit — and that of her frequent creative partner Jen Tullock who, like Utt, also co-wrote and stars in the film — and an affection for its characters, “Before You Know It” doesn’t balk at quirkiness, but it never uses it as a crutch or the only way to process the story.
It doesn’t hurt that Utt and Tullock’s screenplay steadily ratchets up the weirdness, and while the film’s last act is far messier than anything contained in its tight beginning and middle, the result is still a low-key charmer that promises great things from the pair. Plus, there’s Judith Light in some incredible wigs, not one but two tween breakouts, and a scene in which Alec Baldwin gets to be even mildly interesting again. This is Utt and Tullock’s world, and they’d love for you to be a part of it.
A walk-and-talk New York City story made by people who have actually walked, talked, and been in New York City before, “Before You Know It” follows the misadventures of sisters Rachel (Utt) and Jackie (Tullock) and their modern family, including their literally theatrical dad Mel (Mandy Patinkin) and Jackie’s appropriately eye-rolling daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe). The foursome live in a well-loved, but crowded Greenwich Village brownstone, the bottom of which holds their scrappy theater space, in which the eldest trio all work (for little money and, it seems, even less respect).
When Mel unexpectedly passes away after upending one of his last bids for professional relevancy, Rachel and Jackie are stuck picking up the pieces, which come to include the revelation that their long-gone mother is not actually dead and is instead working uptown on a longstanding soap opera. Secret children and alternate identities are the lifeblood of soap operas, and while Rachel and Jackie set about meeting and bonding with their mother Sherrell (a wonderfully unruffled Judith Light), their own lives start to more closely resemble soapy, scripted entertainment.
Set over the course of just a few days, “Before You Know It” soon folds in a number of other characters that might have previously been out of place in Rachel and Jackie’s lives. There’s a smooth-talking and incredibly dumb young lawyer (Ben Beher), the kindhearted accountant Charles (Mike Colter) and his whipsmart daughter Olivia (Arica Himmel), plus the aforementioned Baldwin in a small but amusing role as Dodge’s underprepared therapist. If it all sounds a bit Wes Anderson-y, it is, but Utt and Tullock have such a keen sense of their own themes and tones that it never feels reductive.
The duo are less successful when it comes to wrapping up the feature, having built in some hard-and-fast targets (Jackie wants to put on their father’s final play, Rachel is concerned about their mother making off with their brownstone) and then letting both fall by the wayside through quick and easy conversations. These characters are easy to love, and while the idea of putting them through more pain can be daunting, they’re more than up for the task of making the quirky and weird parts of their lives work out for the best — just like Utt and Tullock.
“Before You Know It” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.