Before You Know It (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): When they encounter their long-lost mother

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“Before You Know It” is basically another quirky family comedy drama set in New York City, but it did its job better than expected. While it occasionally goes for silly comic moments, it steadily stays focused on the strained relationship dynamics among its main characters, and I enjoyed how deftly it moves back and forth between comedy and drama along with its main characters.

At the beginning, we are introduced to a young New Yorker woman named Rachel Gurner (Hannah Pearl Utt), who is having a little private moment along with some other young woman to whom she is clearly attracted. Although both of them are willing to go a bit further with their growing mutual feeling, Rachel hesitates mainly because she has been mostly occupied with her family business, and she eventually returns to her family residence alone.

Rachel has worked as the stage manager for her older sister Jackie (Jen Tullock), who is a theater actress, and their father Mel (Mandy Patinkin), a playwright who has been not so successful for many years despite drawing some attention as a promising actor during his early years. Along with Jackie’s young tomboy daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe), they have resided in a small building whose basement functions as a minor theater for them, and they have been preparing for the performance of Mel’s latest work at present. Rachel later tries some promotion as taking her father to an event where he is invited for a speech, but, as a stubborn guy who does not give a damn about others’ opinions on his works, Mel only comes to mock the event to Rachel’s frustration.

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Not long after they return to their residence, Rachel argues with her father, but then her father suddenly dies, and then, while quite devastated by this sudden incident, Rachel and Jackie come to discover what their father has hidden from them for many years. When they were very young, they were told that their mother was dead, but, what do you know, their mother turns out to be very much alive, and she has actually worked as a main cast member of a very popular TV soap drama for more than 20 years

Because their mother, who is now called Sherrell (Judith Light), has co-owned their residence building along with their father during all those years, Rachel and Jackie need to meet their mother for handling a few financial matters involved with their residence building. Rachel wants to handle this situation as discreetly as possible, but Jackie, who is quite more impulsive and straightforward than her younger sister, quickly decides to meet their mother as soon as possible, and she and Rachel soon find themselves going through a series of small comic situations as they come to enter a studio building where Sherrell’s TV soap drama is being shot.

In the end, Jackie and Rachel directly encounter their long-lost mother, and Sherrell genially welcomes her two daughters even though she has not been particularly happy with the current status of her acting career. Besides getting older day by day, she has to deal with many problems including lousy dialogues she is demanded to deliver in front of the camera, and she is certainly delighted when Rachel and Jackie volunteers to help their mother a bit on her latest episode to shoot.

Meanwhile, the movie also pays some attention to Dodge, who happens to be stuck with Rachel’s new accountant Charles (Mike Colter) during the extending absence of her mother and aunt. Charles kindly takes her to his residence where he lives with his young daughter Olivia (Arica Himmel), and we get a little amusing moment when Olivia gives some help to Dodge when Dodge has to take care of a certain biological incident signaling her ongoing entry into adolescence. As feeling more comfortable than usual in Charles’ home, Dodge is reminded again of how much she has been dissatisfied with her mother, and Charles and Olivia are willing to listen to Dodge’s growing discontent.

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The mood later becomes a bit more serious as Jackie and Rachel come to conflict over their ongoing situation with their mother, but the screenplay by director Hannah Pearl Utt and her co-writer Jen Tullock keeps maintaining its sense of humor while seldom losing its care and understanding toward its main characters. While both Rachel and Jackie are flawed and immature in each own way, we are amused by their human foibles while also understanding their emotional struggles, and we come to care about them more as they try to handle their circumstance as much as they can.

Effortlessly complementing each other on the screen, Utt and Tullock are convincing in how their respective characters push and pull each other, and they are also surrounded by a number of various colorful performers including Mandy Patinkin, Judith Light, Mike Colter, and Alec Baldwin, who briefly appears as a child psychiatrist who has an inappropriate relationship with Jackie. In case of young newcomer Oona Yaffe, she did more than holding her own small place among the notable adult performers in the film, and she and Arica Himmel are believable in the gradual development of their characters’ accidental friendship along the story.

Overall, “Before You Know It” is a modest but engaging work from Utt, who previously made a feature film debut with “Disengaged” (2016). I have not watched that film yet, but “Before You Know It” shows that she is a good director who knows well how to present story and characters, and I will certainly have some expectation when her next feature film comes.

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