Sundance Review: BEFORE YOU KNOW IT, A Great Movie Comes Along

A dramedy far funnier and more idiosyncratic than it looks.

At first glance, Before You Know It looks like it’s going to be just another sad/funny indie drama about young people who don’t know what they’re doing with their lives. From the opening credits, which run in quirky reverse order, to the soundtrack, which sounds a bit like Belle & Sebastian doing ‘60s pastiche, to the fact that, hey, it’s about young people who don’t know what they’re doing with their lives, Before You Know It feels like the kind of movie you’ve seen a million times and can probably skip all day long.

As soon as we meet the family at the film’s core, however, Before You Know It begins displaying its sincere idiosyncrasies and wit. The film earns its third act emotions, but it is a comedy first and foremost, one that never stopped blowing me away with its performances and great lines.

Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock (who both wrote the film together while Utt directed) play sisters Rachel and Jackie, two very different individuals both raised by a drunken, somewhat washed-up playwright (the great Mandy Patinkin). They all live together along with Jackie’s twelve-year-old daughter above a small theater that they rent out when not running their father’s productions. Rachel is a responsible stage manager while Jackie is the chaotic actress. These roles define them whether they’re working on a play or not.

When their unruly but beloved father suddenly passes away, the sisters learn their building is actually owned by a woman they’ve never met who ends up being the mother they’d been told their whole lives was dead. She is not dead. Instead she is 1) alive 2) a famous Soap Opera actress and 3) played by the incredible Judith Light.

That’s Before You Know It's general story, but it also doesn’t matter because the film’s primary qualities are in the writing and performances. It’s all just so sharp. Hardly a scene goes by without some superfluous, unexpected tag that elevates the scene preceding it and keeps the film constantly brimming with a wild, feel-good energy. The characters are vibrant and drawn with well-observed details that make them come alive and help imbue these great jokes with inner information that drives the emotions that come throughout the third act.

It definitely helps that the cast is so good. Tullock and Utt clearly know their characters inside and out, but the film is also aided by brief, low-key turns from Alec Baldwin and Mike Colter, who should really be getting more actor roles.

The MVP, however, is Judith Light, who plays her character with a unique physicality. As an aging, extremely vain actress, Light plays her role with these shaky, unsteady movements that make her sobriety and awareness unclear, which lends a strange tension to her scenes. It’s an interesting move that helps a create a unique character rather than the caricature she easily could have been.

I suspect it will be easy for readers of this site to overlook a movie like Before You Know It, especially if it doesn’t get any kind of high-profile release. I recommend giving it a chance anyway, as I went into it with that mindset and nevertheless found myself totally succumbing to its charms. And I am definitely looking out for whatever Tullock and Utt do next.