Before You Know It

It’s great that the Sundance Institute helps young filmmakers get movies made. One of the best songwriters in America named Stew, and his partner, bassist Heidi (both from the band The Negro Problem) got something made with the help of Sundance. Now, we get this indie movie written by friends Hannah Pearl Utt (who also directed and stars) and Jen Tullock (who stars as the ditzy sister).

It’s a solid, albeit flawed, debut feature from Utt (Disengaged). 

There are many characters and subplots in this film, and Utt isn’t sure if she’s shooting for a wacky comedy, dysfunctional family drama, or quirky indie flick. There was a time I wondered how much better this would have been if done by Noah Bambauch, or Woody Allen in the ‘70s (especially when Alec Baldwin showed up for a few scenes as the inept psychiatrist). 

The story starts off with Rachel (Utt) coming home from a date with a woman, only to inform her that she lives on top of the off Broadway theatre her family owns. She’s a stage manager for plays her father (Mandy Patinkin) writes and stars in, with his wacky daughter Jackie (Tullock).

After Rachel sets up an event that can get the new play more exposure (and financing), dad ruins his chance with his behavior. It’s implied he doesn’t like the introduction he was given, which merely mentions one successful Broadway play he did back in 1971. Mel mutters later at home, that he’s done over 50 plays. He’s also being difficult about the rewrites Rachel is making.

As auditions are going on for the play, we find out daddy has a secret. He always said their mother had died, but the daughters find out she’s not only alive — she’s a famous actress (Judith Light) on a popular soap opera.

Once the sisters sneak onto the set of the show, I was hoping for some humor. It started promising. A tough security guard (Linda Arroz) named Rhonda, has to explain how her name is pronounced. It was hysterical. All the other jokes attempted during the sneaking onto the set — don’t really land.

It’s refreshing that Sherrell (Judith Light) isn’t an over-the-top diva that’s a jerk to those around her. She’s a rather sympathetic character, although she and Patinkin were a bit caricatured. It’s nice that Light got a chance to shine (see what I did there?),  since she had such a small part in the movie Hot Air a few weeks ago.

Since we’re in the world of soap operas, I couldn’t help thinking of the much better Soapdish from 1991. This movie used a few things that were similar to scenes in that picture, too.

[Fun fact: Judith Light started her career on Broadway in 1970, but got famous on the soap One Life to Live in 1977]. 

The plot thickens when we find out about a debt against the theatre, and that the estranged mom is actually the co-owner.

The movie works a lot better with the dramatic scenes. There are a few times the sisters have confrontations, and they’re well written and acted.

Jackie has a daughter named “Dodge” (Oona Yaffe) and you think she might have some issues. She has an androgenous way of dressing (for part of the movie my wife and I thought she was a boy), and she’s seeing a shrink. Yet she’s actually normal and rather likable. Her few dramatic scenes (including a confrontation with mom), are well done. The movie also shows a bit of sweetness when we see her bond with a new friend, played wonderfully by Arica Himmel.

There’s also solid supporting work from Ben Becher as an over-eager attorney.

Mike Colter (Luke Cage) plays a good father and possible love interest.

This screenplay is a bit contrived and a lot of it feels forced, but I still enjoyed watching these characters most of the time. The problem is that the script is rather light.

Oh, and like 90% of the movies made these days, it has a barfing scene. I’m not sure what Hollywood’s fascination is with vomit.

Even though this didn’t completely work for me, I’ll be looking forward to the next film Utt and Tullock make.

You can check this out at the Angelika Film Center this weekend, or the Hillcrest Landmark.

2 ½ stars out of 5.

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