None of us get to choose the who is on the branches of our family tree, which actually works out pretty well for some of the memoir-writing children of famous people. But as many fictional and non-fictional stories as there are about people managing familial relationships, Before You Know It looks at family ties through a less common lens by considering what happens when a mother opts out entirely.
In this case, the absentee mother is Sherrell (Judith Light), whose two adult children, Jackie and Rachel, have been told that their mother was dead for as long as they can remember. When their father (Mandy Patinkin) dies and they’re notified of the details of his will, they discover that Sherrell, a late-career soap opera actress, is very much alive and in financial control of their home and livelihood.
Hannah Pearl Utt and Jen Tullock, who play Rachel and Jackie, co-wrote the film, and Utt is the director as well. The writing and direction demonstrate a keen understanding of the complicated nature of close, longstanding relationships, and there’s a lot of nuance in the way that Jackie and Rachel’s tie as sisters defines both of them in a way that each finds frustrating for her own reasons. Each sister takes her turn in being sympathetic and her turn in being exasperating, and many viewers with siblings will be able to relate to their conflict and connection.
Sherrell rarely warrants any sympathy, but it’s difficult to judge her too harshly for her missteps once her daughters reenter her life. Judith Light’s deft performance creates a character who is entirely self-centered, but still doesn’t really feel like the bad guy. You can’t help but wonder whether someone so selfish and uninterested in parenting did the right thing by walking away from her family. At the very least, you can’t be surprised when she turns out to be a pretty bad mother.
As engaging as the interactions between the three adult women are, Oona Yaffe steals the show as Dodge, Jackie’s 13-year-old daughter. The relationship Dodge builds with Chloe (Carly Brooke), a friend she makes through very unusual circumstances, is one of the most charming parts of the film. The two seem quite different, but the way they bond over familial frustrations and through teenage girl honesty feels real and relatable. There’s also a scene in which Chloe explains to Dodge how to use a tampon, and it’s a good reminder that we need more people who menstruate writing and directing movies. For as common an experience as getting one’s period is, it’s rarely handled on-screen with this much drama-free honesty.
For all of its charm, Before You Know It is not without flaws. Mel, Jackie and Rachel’s father, is in the film for exactly the wrong amount of time – too briefly for us to really understand much about him, but long enough that we feel like we should. Also, early on, Jackie comes across as such a half-baked character that it takes a little too long to realize that she’s meant to be as multi-dimensional and interesting as her sister. And Alec Baldwin seems to have no purpose in this film other than to appear in two brief scenes so that he could be listed in the marketing materials.
But on the whole, Before You Know It is worth seeing for the unique lens it uses when examining the way we take up or leave space in the lives of our family members, and the way those decisions impact us individually. Decades ago, Sherrell’s leaving created a space that Jackie, Rachel, Mel, and eventually Dodge tried to fill by being everything – friend, colleague, parent, sibling – to each other. When Mel’s death creates a new void, Rachel and Jackie need to decide whether to try to bring their estranged mother in to fill that space, or whether it’s time to give everyone a little breathing room.