Hannah Pearl Utt tackles the timeless theme of family with a solid directorial debut.
Our families are what create us; they shape our personalities and give us our greatest loves and deepest traumas. When someone’s conception of who or what their family is changes, it shakes them to the core of their being. In her New York-based directorial debut Before You Know It, actress and writer Hannah Pearl Utt (Disengaged, Partners) explores the convoluted relationship between two sisters and the mother they thought long dead.
Before You Know It follows business-minded Rachel Gurner (Utt) and her free-spirited sister Jackie (Jen Tullock) following their father Mel’s (Mandy Patinkin) death. Mel, an actor, playwright and theater owner in Greenwich Village, had told the sisters their mother had passed when they were young, but a will unearths she is very much alive and owns the home the family shares. Sherrell (Judith Light) is a leading actress on the long-running Time Will Tell soap opera.
The sisters pursue developing a relationship with their estranged mother: Jackie out of a desire to know Sherrell and Rachel from the fear Sharell will take away their home. Meanwhile, Jackie’s daughter Dodge begins her journey into adulthood. Mostly left to her own devices, Dodge befriends Olivia (Arica Himmel), the daughter of the family’s accountant, who helps Dodge navigate her first period.
Utt plays Rachel as the perennial straight woman, set against a surreal artistic world that verges on camp. Prior to his death, Mel and Jackie seem to inhabit an artistic folie à deux, giving melodramatic performances in their family theater. Sherrell similarly doesn’t seem to live in the same world as Rachel, seeming more in place in the golden age of Hollywood with pancake makeup, wigs and extravagant gowns – be they evening or dressing. Light steals every scene she’s in and is especially delightful in her scenery-chewing soap opera footage.
Most of the humor stems from the juxtaposition between Rachel and the other characters, often to great effect. Rachel following Jackie in her infiltration of Sherrell’s studio to meet their mother is particularly wacky, and Sherrell’s entrance to the story features excellent use of soap opera dialogue as a commentary on the main plot.
Before You Know It uses its large cast to explore the fraught relationship between parent and child. While the role of parent as provider and nurturer is the dominant narrative, the reality of many people’s families is much more complex, with parents often relying on their children for emotional support. Mel throws away the opportunity that Rachel worked to secure for him by childishly blowing a raspberry on stage.
While Jackie bemoans the way that she was abandoned by her own mother, Dodge’s subplot centers on Jackie’s conspicuous absence from her daughter’s life, not even there to help when Dodge gets her first period. Rather than Jackie helping Dodge learn to use a tampon, it’s Olivia, the far too precocious 14-year-old friend. While the self-absorption of the film’s characters is exaggerated, it’s still essentially relatable; after all, one of the hard truths learned while growing up is that your parents will often fail at their responsibilities. Jackie and Sherrell aren’t bad people, they’re just unable to reconcile their own desires with the demands of parenthood.
Utt stuffs too much into a runtime of under an hour and forty minutes. While Olivia and her father Charles (Mike Colter, Luke Cage) add to Dodge’s personal development, it also adds some dead ends to the story. A potential love affair between Charles and Jackie goes nowhere, as does the conflict between Olivia and Charles about Charles’ dead wife. With such a short amount of time to work with, the film would have been better cutting out these plots to build up more backstory of the Gurner family to help build emotional investment to some of the final act’s reveals.
Is a life of pure pragmatism really the answer we should seek?
Beyond the surface level tension of the parent and child relationship, there is also a hint of intergenerational conflict. Mel and Sharell are a characterization of bygone generations, put sharply in contrast with the Millennial Rachel. Mel is a Village bohemian, taken straight out of the time when a bohemian could afford to live in the Village. He eschews pragmatic decisions to maintain his artistic vision and leaves a massive load of debt that threatens his children’s home – a very unsubtle metaphor for the housing woes of younger generations.
But the idea that Rachel is an ideal worth aspiring to is not without its own problems. Is a life of pure pragmatism really the answer we should seek? After all, the boomer generation’s missteps on the environment and the economy threatens their children’s security; exploring that would tie a larger theme into the small scale family drama.
Before You Know It sets a good groundwork for Utt’s future work. While there are a few story and thematic missteps, the relatable characters ultimately carry Before You Know It‘s indie-flavored dramedy. The complexity of the parent-child relationship is a staple of many films, but Utt explores these messy dynamics with aplomb. As boomers pass into old age and millennials figure how they’re going to take their place, the film feels particularly timely.
Before You Know It is in limited release now.