Longtime creative collaborators and writing partners Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock tackle the messy business of parenting and parentage in “Before You Know It,” in which they star as a pair of sisters navigating the loss of one parent and the gain of another. Utt and Tullock previously wrote and starred in the same-sex marriage web series “Disengaged,” and Utt makes her feature directorial debut with this charming, if slight, dramedy.
Rachel (Utt) is utterly frustrated by her unconventional life. Living in an apartment above an old theater with her father, Mel (Mandy Patinkin), sister, Jackie (Tullock) and niece, Dodge (Oona Yaffe), doesn’t leave much room for a personal life or even a career, as her demanding actor/playwright father needs his daughters’ full support for his creative theatrical endeavors. That all comes crashing down when Mel unexpectedly passes away, and the sisters learn that a soap opera actress, Sherrell (Judith Light), is the other name on the deed to the theater. Could she be their long-lost mother?
“Before You Know It” is a distinctively New York film, filled with quirky characters and moments of serendipity, the kind of movie that makes New York seem like a small town, filled with interpersonal connections that can be lost or gained in an instant. Utt captures the sense of place and the people in it well as the film whirls around the staid, serious Rachel and the impulsive, heady Jackie, who are processing their father’s death and the shocking discovery of their mother, whom they believed dead.
At the core of the story are the three women, and the film is strongest when the trio pulls focus. Sherrell is only able to communicate her life story through the veil of the character she’s played on TV for 30 years and connects with erstwhile writer Rachel through narrative. The wanton Jackie cycles through every emotion, man and glass of wine that crosses her path, to the detriment of her daughter, Dodge, but the pattern of neglect is a reproduction of her own experience with losing a mom at a young age. Tullock, especially, is the breakout star of the film, imbuing her ostentatious character with real soul.
Tullock’s on-screen chemistry with Utt, as well as Light’s incredibly specific performance, propels the film forward, through messy half-baked subplots. Mike Colter is always a welcome screen presence, but as the sisters’ accountant, Charles, his story line, which involves the friendship between his daughter and Dodge, just feels undone and underwritten. Ostensibly, it’s to show the challenges just about anyone has with a parent, but it feels awkwardly shoehorned in, as does a brief encounter with Alec Baldwin, playing Dodge’s child psychologist who has a dalliance with Jackie.
Utt and Tullock’s writing brushes the depths of humanity, including parental neglect, abandonment, domestic abuse and even the complications of estate planning (or lack thereof). But while it gestures at darker moments that crop up in the surreal period of immediate grief, “Before You Know It” always zigs away, choosing levity, irony and rom-com beats over melodrama. It’s a charming and quirky New York tale, if a bit disorganized, finding its voice when it quiets down to just listen to the three women at the center of the story.
Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
Playing: Starts Aug. 30, The Landmark, West Los Angeles