“BEFORE YOU KNOW IT”— A Codependent Family Struggling to Run a Small New York City Theater


A Codependent Family Struggling to Run a Small New York City Theater

Amos Lassen

“Before You Know It” is about a family that lives above a small community theater that they own in New York City. The family is made up of patriarch and has-been playwright Mel (Mandy Patinkin); his oldest daughter, Jackie (Jen Tullock)  who is an actress stuck in adolescence and  the single mother of a 12 year-old named Dodge (Oona Yaffe) and Jackie’s sister, Rachel (Hannah Pearl Utt, the director and wo-writer of the film) who is the only real grown-up in the family, who holds the family and the theater together and who has just a few control issues.

The codependence among the members of the family has stopped the adults from ever really having to grow up. Everything revolves around the theater and putting on mediocre plays. When the father’s death reveals the mother they thought was dead is actually alive, Rachel and Jackie are forced into coming-of-age journeys even though they are in their 30s.

The claustrophobic family dynamics are enhanced by the cramped apartment the family shares. Rachel feels smothered in a family that she’s finally starting to grow out of. There is something very familiar here while at the same time this is something we haven’t seen before. There are serious themes here such as death and abandonment but the film is also quite funny because of its honesty and candor. The actors propel the film and we see both the craft of acting and the importance of theater in what often seems to be a play within a play. What it is really about are how the obligations of family can feel burdensome and filled with joy at the same time. It’s about fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters and the journey from codependency to boundaries. The well-developed characters keep it moving almost perfectly.

Sherrell (Judith Light) is the estranged mother— a television soap actress who is being taken off her show because of ageism. The director is able to bring together  a comedy about a dysfunctional family with a Jewish sensibility that entertains and makes us think.

The situation that the family lives in isn’t so great for dating as Rachel learns rather quickly.  She and her sister Jackie and their father are working to put on Mel’s new play when he suddenly passes dies. It is the that they learn that the mother who they were told had died when they were very young, reappears. This means that they’ll have to come up with some sort of creative plan to meet her.

While this is happening, Jackie’s daughter, Dodge is in therapy with Peter (Alec Baldwin) and their sessions aren’t going so well.  The sisters bring in Charles (Mike Colter) to help them with settling their father’s estate and he is forced to look after Dodge because Jackie is off trying to get to know her mother.  As this is happening, Dodge becomes friends with Charles’ daughter, Olivia (Arica Himmel).

Through Sherrell we get  comment on the current ageism in the industry.  When actresses start getting older, the jobs don’t exist in the same way as when they were younger.  Working with her mom, Rachel comes up with ways to prevent her from being written off of the series.  We realize that had if Mel not died, Sherrell could very easily have been out of a job soon.

The film is a tragicomedy and the solid directorial debut for Hannah Pearl Utt. It all works because of the screenplay by writer/director Utt and co-writer Jen Tullock There are several witty lines and quips that generate some laughter and there are screwball moments but there is a lot of tragedy beneath the surface that the screenplay. The story is basically about adult children of a narcissistic mother and father who are at a turning point in their lives. When the toxic father dies, they reunite with the toxic mother who seems like she wants to be more of a best friend more than a mother. Jackie is at risk of becoming a bad parent to her 12-year-old daughter who tells her that she’s not a good parent. Jackie’s poor parenting skills aren’t her fault because she and Rachel didn’t have good parents to look up to growing up.

The women are all flawed, insecure human beings who strive and deserve to be happy, but they’re stuck in this toxic environment of their narcissistic family. The sisters lack empathy and have boundary issues, much like their mother and father. They have every right to feel sad, angry and frustrated like all human beings do but we really do not see that. The characters need someone to talk to who can guide them through their complicated emotions and love them unconditionally. Dodge, at least, sees a therapist but he seems to have issues of his own that he hasn’t dealt with, so she probably needs a better therapist. Rachel, Jackie and Sherrell might be able to use some therapy as well to sort out their deeply-rooted psychological issues. As I said, the performances are excellent and genuinely heartfelt and make up for the screenplay’s shortcomings.

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