The dysfunctional family dramedy is alive and well and (still) living in New York City. Before You Know It is reminiscent of a Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach film, but with a refreshing absence of male directorial gaze.
In her feature directorial debut, Hannah Pearl Utt delivers the familiar trope of a family that just can’t seem to pry itself out of a lifetime of co-dependent behaviors, further exacerbated by the fact that they are still living under the same roof in their childhood home. Patriarch Mel Gurner (Mandy Patinkin) is an aged and washed-up playwright attempting a resurgence in the theater world as he works (and reworks) his newest play with the help of his daughters Rachel (Utt) and Jackie (Jen Tullock, who co-wrote the script with Utt).
The death of their mother during their early childhood has left the sisters to fill that matriarchal void through various archetypal coping mechanisms. Rachel is the responsible, controlling manager of both the stage and the family, while single mother Jackie is stuck in perpetual adolescence. Comically complementary, the sisters’ lives are upended by the sudden death of their father, which also leads to the revelation that their mother (Judith Light) is, in fact, alive and well and living as a successful, aging soap opera star.
The main plotline follows Rachel and Jackie as they search for and reconnect with their long-lost, narcissistic mom. The trio’s tragic flaws are unearthed in predictable yet humorous ways as they awkwardly navigate their new relationship. The real gem of this film, however, is the subplot that follows Dodge (Oona Yaffe), Jackie’s somewhat neglected 13-year-old daughter. As Rachel and Jackie drop everything to pursue their mother, Dodge is left to grapple alone with the feelings brought on by the death of her grandfather. While the patterns of Gurner family abandonment play out anew within Dodge’s story, her scrappy, intelligent and persevering nature allows her to overcome these issues in a mindful and communicative way, something that her mother and aunt would do well to note.
The highbrow humor, paired with the slightly esoteric NYC theater references, make Before You Know It feel somewhat inaccessible to me and intended for a specialized audience. But to the film’s credit, I did catch myself wondering if there was some self-awareness to this approach in instances when Utt and Tullock seem to be poking fun at those same aspects of the city’s art and theater culture. Regardless, the refreshing take on female character development is the true gift of this film and sets it apart as an important piece of modern cinema and screenwriting.