UNEXPECTED, written and directed by Kris Swanberg, was one of my happiest discoveries at Sundance this year. Surprisingly, for such a big part of human life, pregnancy films aren’t that common in Hollywood, and when they are featured, they are told more from the male point-of-view (KNOCKED UP, NINE MONTHS, etc.). How ridiculous is that? Some of the few exceptions are JUNO, WAITRESS, and BABY MAMA, three favorites of mine. Thankfully UNEXPECTED is a new movie to add to the list.
Based partially on Swanberg’s own experiences teaching in a Chicago public school, the heartwarming story follows two women with unexpected pregnancies in different stages of life and different socio-economic classes. Sam (Cobie Smulders) is a science teacher at an inner-city school in Chicago. When Sam finds out she is pregnant, it shouldn’t seem like that big of an issue for her. After all, she has a loving boyfriend (Anders Holm), a helpful (yet annoying) mom (Elizabeth McGovern), and is about to be jobless because her school is closing, which would give her more time to spend with the baby. However, Sam wants more than just being a mom. Before becoming pregnant, Sam was planning to apply for her dream job, as the coordinator of the entire city’s science curriculum. Because the job’s start date coincides with her due date, however, it doesn’t look like she can have the best of both worlds.
On the flip side, Sam’s brightest student Jasmine (played magnificently by Gail Bean) has just found out that she is also pregnant. And while Jasmine doesn’t seem too upset about the unexpected pregnancy, the news seems almost devastating to Sam, who was really excited for Jasmine to go to her own alma mater, the University of Illinois. In one telling scene, Sam even asks Jasmine if the baby’s father is “mad” over the pregnancy, to which Jasmine replies, “No. Why would he be?” As their pregnancies progress, the two women’s bond becomes even stronger than teacher and student; they become friends, even going to prenatal yoga classes together. But Sam’s mentorship and obsession with Jasmine’s future education begins to get a little much and Sam has to realize that although Jasmine is motivated to achieve more for herself and her child, she may have to go about it differently than Sam imagines.
I love that UNEXPECTED never falls into the trap of being predictable or stereotypical. Whereas lesser films would make Jasmine come from a terrible, loveless family and/or a crime-ridden neighborhood, that wasn’t the case. While Jasmine’s mom did have trouble raising her and her neighborhood isn’t the best, Jasmine is now surrounded by a loving family who support her throughout her entire pregnancy. They even have a beautiful baby shower for her. The film also briefly addresses a woman’s right to choose whether they want to have the baby or not. Although both women do decide to continue their pregnancies, the important issue of choice is broached.
Because the story and characters come from such a real place, the drama is also not artificial whatsoever; any conflict comes organically. For example, I kept waiting for something horrible to happen to Jasmine or Sam whenever the action shifted to Jasmine’s neighborhood, but that never happened. In fact, the only real drama between Jasmine and Sam is regarding college… and Jasmine’s proclivity for mixing pickle juice and Flaming Hot Cheetos. How refreshing!
Cobie Smulders is such an inherently likeable actress and it takes someone with her talent and charisma to pull off a role like Sam. From her work on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, to her turn as Agent Maria Hill in the Marvel films and AGENTS OF SHIELD, Smulders always seems to make her characters relatable… even if they are super spies. Her character in UNEXPECTED is no exception, perfectly characterizing many women’s anxieties about losing their own identity when they become a mother. Not to mention, having met Cobie at Sundance I can say she is just as genuinely kind and approachable as her character in this film. And if you thought Smulders’ pregnant belly looked real, you’re right. In the Q&A following the film, Swanberg admitted that Cobie Smulders was actually pregnant during filming. How cool is that? I kept thinking, “How did they make her belly look so real?! On an indie budget no less.”
UNEXPECTED is such a lovely, sweet film, that had me smiling the entire time. It never became eye-rollingly sentimental; the realness of the script and performances is what really made it shine. Whichever distributor decides to purchase this film has a hit on their hands, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves.
My Review: B+/A-