Rachel (Hannah Pearl Utt), a lesbian who is the stage manager of her father’s theater in the Village, has a life right out of a situation comedy. Her date with Celia (Ayden Mayeri) ends abruptly because she needs to care for her wacky family. Her father Mel (Mandy Patinkin) is a once-famous actor/ playwright and her older sister Jackie (co-writer Jen Tullock) is flighty, impulsive, and irresponsible. Jackie’s pre-teen daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe) has plans to see Peter (Alec Baldwin), a therapist, for some personal issues.
In fact, the characters in “Before You Know It” are not in a situation comedy, but rather a frustration comedy. This film, co-written and directed by Utt, never lives up to its potential. Few of the jokes land, and it come alive only in its big dramatic moments.
Utt engages viewers at first with a roving camera that follows Rachel and Celia down a street and then Rachel into her rabbit warren of a home, which sits above the family’s theater. Her family’s life is clearly a mess, and Rachel is the sensible and sympathetic one.
The film never quite generates real laughs. Mel embarrasses himself at a function and Rachel justly lashes out at him. His response is to die unexpectedly. Rachel’s grief is barely addressed, and the story instead veers into a twist that Mel’s property is actually deeded to Rachel and Jackie’s mother Sherrell (Judith Light), who the daughters had long believed was dead but is in fact a successful soap opera actress. So, in Lucy and Ethel style, the sisters scam their way onto the set of Sherrell’s soap, “Time Will Tell.” Several unfunny scenes in which one or both of the two are mistaken for actresses lead to a confrontation between mother and daughters better suited to a soap opera than a comedy.
Meanwhile, tomboy Dodge is spending time with Charles (Mike Colter), the theater’s accountant, and his teenage daughter Olivia (Arica Himmel). In a subplot that almost proves more interesting than the main storyline, Dodge gets her period and brings the problems she has with her mother to Olivia and Mike. The subsequent chat she has with Jackie provides the movie with some needed heart.
But, to its detriment, “Before You Know It” insists on being lighthearted. Jackie adores Sherrell, but her mother favors the smarter daughter Rachel, setting the stage for sibling rivalry. Why Rachel and Jackie get caught up in helping Sherrell with her career rather than getting the property paperwork straightened out is one of the film’s mysteries. So, too, is the fact that nobody seems interested in Dodge’s androgynous demeanor. Utt consistently places the emphasis on the wrong syllable.
“Before You Know It” is unfocused in portraying its female protagonists. Rachel is shrewd, yet she behaves stupidly, allowing Mel, Jackie, and Sherrell to use her. Rachel’s belated move to stand up for herself feels less about self-empowerment than simply too little too late. When Sherrell is giving Rachel a makeover as if she were playing with a doll, it’s unclear if her daughter welcomes the bonding moment or is simply going along to get along.
Tullock offers an energetic performance as Jackie, but her character is needy and self-centered and her rivalry with Rachel really never fully takes shape. The character belongs in a different, better film.
In support, Light emphasizes Sherrell’s vulnerability instead of her strength — which seems the right choice for this character — but her feistiness comes across as forced not comic. As Dodge, Yaffe does her best in a thankless role.
“Before You Know It” might have worked better as a web series than a feature. It has an episodic nature and a few good moments — such as a tense discussion between the two sisters in a bathroom. When it crackles, it makes one wish the rest of the film were as strong.
BEFORE YOU KNOW IT | Directed by Hannah Pearl Utt | 1091 Media | Opens Aug. 30 | The Quad, 34 W. 13th St.; quadcinema.com | Landmark at 57 West, 657 W. 57th St.; landmarktheatres.com