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After making two low-budget, partly improvised features that saw limited exposure, director Kris Swanberg moves into more conventional though quite satisfying territory with a personal exploration of the anticipation and anxieties encountered on the road to maternity. While it’s decidedly small in scope, Unexpected can at least be pitched to a sizeable demographic, given that it will speak directly to most women who have experienced pregnancy and childbirth. Extending its appeal is a nuanced performance from How I Met Your Mother star Cobie Smulders in the central role.
Perhaps the biggest initial hurdle facing the production is the expectation created by its questionable positioning in the Sundance Dramatic competition. This is a small, very delicate film, without much edge to speak of. But modest intent is by no means a crime, and Swanberg and her co-writer Megan Mercier do an assured job of coaxing the minor-key humor and conflict gently from the naturalistic situations.
Undeniably though, it’s hard not to sit through Unexpected without the nagging awareness that we’re back in the land of Middle-Class White Lady problems. The filmmakers counter that narrowness by flanking Samantha, the inner-city Chicago high school science teacher played by Smulders, with Jasmine (Gail Bean), an African-American graduating student from a low-income family, whose pregnancy throws a wrench in her plan to attend a good college.
Keeping A-student Jasmine’s future on track becomes Sam’s pet project — distracting her from her own uncertainties — and when reality throws up a roadblock, the character gets nudged to the narrative sidelines. This might have been a copout in less skilled hands, but the sensitivity and compassion of Swanberg’s film keep us involved.
With the school where she teaches about to be closed, Sam has been casting about for a career alternative. But her dream job as the education coordinator at the Field Museum of Natural History comes up at the same time she discovers she’s pregnant, and while she aces the interview, start date and due date are impossibly close together. She wants a family, but had planned on it much later, after marriage to her live-in boyfriend John (Anders Holm). He adjusts quickly to the idea, proposing and unilaterally deciding that she’ll drop everything to be a stay-at-home mom for the first couple of years. “I’ll float us,” he says, not even thinking she might have other options. That assumption causes friction, while Sam’s controlling mother (Elizabeth McGovern) initially does little to ease her doubts.
There are amusing moments when Sam’s students notice the new rock on her finger and put two and two together when she throws up in a morning class. The film becomes most interesting after she learns of Jasmine’s pregnancy and takes the girl under her wing. Everything looks rosy as they start attending pre-natal yoga classes together and Sam finds info on family-housing options at her old alma mater, where Jasmine can live with her baby on campus.
When complications arise, however, Jasmine calls Sam out on being clueless about the real disappointments of lives less privileged than her own. The point is made with more rueful acceptance than major dramatic ramifications or deep self-examination on Sam’s part. But it’s enough to give the movie a sense of inclusiveness as it considers the family-or-career question and its resulting compromises and sacrifices across two quite distinct economic levels. The joy and excitement of impending motherhood also get a look-in for both main characters, closing Unexpected on a sweet note.
This is a warmly observed, unpretentious film that will find a receptive audience, even if it may not be in theaters. The commonplace nature of many of the issues it addresses may well be the very aspect that draws women viewers eager to see their maternal experience reflected in a relatable dramatic context.
The actors are all strong, playing basically well-adjusted characters with enough imperfections to make them real. Smulders and Bean have a lovely rapport together, whether in harmony or at odds, and it’s especially agreeable to see McGovern taking a break from Downton Abbey turf in a contemporary American role.
Production company: Dark Arts
Cast: Cobie Smulders, Gail Bean, Anders Holm, Elizabeth McGovern, Aaron Nelson
Director: Kris Swanberg
Screenwriters: Kris Swanberg, Megan Mercier
Producer: Andrea Roa
Executive producers: Peter Gilbert, Chris Webber, Edwin Linker, Julian Peterson
Director of photography: Dagmar Weaver-Madsen
Production designer: Brandon Tonner-Connolly
Costume designer: Megan Spatz
Music: Keegan Dewitt
Editor: Zach Clark
Casting: Claire Simon
Sales: Animal Kingdom Films/Visit Films
No rating, 85 minutes.