‘Before You Know It’ is a Meandering, Dreary Family Drama

Given the historical patriarchal landscape of the film industry it is surprising just how many films that seek to explore the experiences of a disgruntled young woman have arisen in recent years. The women in these films have no idea where they are going in life, only that they are dissatisfied with their current situations. Often some life changing event occurs which forces them to become an adult, something for which they are wholly unprepared. Examples that spring to mind are the Greta Gerwig penned Frances Ha, or Gillian Robspierre’s Obvious Child. Hannah Pearl Utt’s Before You Know It falls neatly into this lexus of films.

Rachel Gurner (writer/director Hannah Pearl Utt) lives with her unstable, failing playwright father Mel (Mandy Patinkin), unreliable elder sister (writing partner Jen Tullock) Jackie and Jackie’s teenage daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe). They live in the flat above a local theatre, which they own, and predictably, don’t have the money to run. After Mel deliberately sabotages a stellar opportunity Rachel has lined up for him, they have an argument, which results in Mel having a heart attack. After their father’s death, they discover that his will was woefully inadequate and that their mother, whom they believed was dead, is the new owner of their home. Their mother is revealed to be soap opera star Sherrell (Judith Light), a flaky woman with problems of her own. But what could go wrong when Jackie decides she needs to know the woman who was their mother?

It would be generous to say that this film is a journey of self-discovery or reconciliation. It is more like a series of television episodes that were abandoned half way through development, then shoved together to make a semi-comprehensible film plot. No tragedy or event is ever fully fleshed out or brought to a satisfying conclusion and not a single character ever really seems interested in pursuing a problem to its resolution. But that is life, is it not? Things happen suddenly, without reason, and you have to do your best regardless, right? But even Rachel, the strong, responsible sister, floats around and never sinks her teeth into anything. 

The cinematography style is reminiscent of cinema-verite, as the camera follows the characters but never interacts, never calls the viewer’s attention to anything specific. It’s almost as if Hannah Utt just said ‘right, follow us’ and forgot to give her Director of Photography any further instructions. There is some nicely coloured ‘b-roll’ of New York which has some beautiful, distinctive yellow tones that show New York in a different light compared to your classic Hollywood film. But unfortunately, these shots add very little to the film other than highlighting the New York artists’ world the characters inhabit. 

Mandy Pantikin gives an amusing, if brief, performance as Mel Gurner, leaving you wishing he had stuck around for more of the film rather than leave us with Utt and Tullock. Multiple Emmy and Tony award winner Judith Light is almost wasted in the role of ditzy soap opera star Sherrell, who has an inconsistent back story involving everything from abuse, to being the anonymous benefactor of the theatre, to her naive belief that her children would find her. There is a lot packed into her character that so easily could have been the centre of this film and a tight, interesting focus. But Utt never really gets into the meat of the conflict between Sherrell and her daughters. All Rachel needs to know is that her mother abandoned her, nothing else matters apparently. The saving grace of these sisters (and the film) is the youngest Gerner: Dodge. Sweet and wise beyond her years with her own unravelling, independent story line which is never resolved, Oona Yaffe brings a refreshing honesty to this scramble.

The arguable climax of the film is when Rachel and Jackie attend an industry event with Sherrell. Rachel is taken under Sherrell’s wing as she gives her a makeover, and brings her own the red carpet because she wants to use Rachel’s writing talent to further her own career. Whereas the attention seeking, actress Jackie is left abandoned, and has to make her own way to the party. As a result of all the attention Rachel receives, Jackie gets very drunk and embarrasses herself quite thoroughly. Rachel drags Jackie into a toilet to clean her up and they have a tremendous argument where they both badly misread each other’s behaviour. This scene is what the film is really about – a showcase for these two actresses. A chance for them to have the camera on them and only them, regardless of whether it serves the plot. Neither character is really upset about what the other said. Rachel has a showdown with her mother and they leave.

Before You Know It is categorised as a comedy. Perhaps it is somewhat tongue in cheek, but there is no overt humour anywhere in the film unless we’re meant to laugh at Mel’s pretend death moments before his real one? It is true that there are far worse films. If one is interested in this specific kind of film then it will be a slow, labyrinthine journey that captures that late twenties crisis of identity quite well. However, if one seeks engaging, well structured stories this film is not for you. It never reaches the emotional heights that makes other films of this nature so engrossing, preferring to wander down a long, winding path, acknowledging the flashing neon signs of plot development, then promptly turn in the opposite direction, confidently avoiding any real emotional conclusion.

Before You Know It is available on Digital now


by Mia Garfield

Mia Garfield has just finished a degree in Film at Falmouth University. She has just finished her first short ‘Sonder’, keep an eye out for it at festivals in the UK. A big lover of Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Mythology, her taste is varied. Her favourite films include Howl’s Moving Castle, Memoirs of A Geisha, How to Train Your Dragon, and Big Hero 6. You can find her @miajulianna2864

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