Review: Indie Drama Unexpected Lives Up to Its Title—in a Good Way
And Cobie Smulders has never been better.
The film is, first and foremost, an exceptionally well-written film by Kris Swanberg and cowriter Megan Mercier. That’s not to say this film is overwritten or the dialogue feels unnatural. But you sense early on that there is a POV behind this film with something very specific to say, and they’ve found good actors to give voice to the characters they wrote.
Unexpected focuses on the unplanned pregnancies of two women: a high school senior named Jasmine (newcomer Gail Bean) and her science teacher, Sam (Cobie Smulders). Sam is quick to offer advice and guidance to Jasmine (stepping over the line more than few times), perhaps as much to distract her from the anxiety of parenthood as out of genuine concern for her student. Sam wants her straight-A student to go to college (something she stresses to all her students) and wants to make it clear that motherhood shouldn’t prevent her from reaching her personal goals. She even goes so far as to find a college with family housing so Jasmine can take her child with her.
But Sam really has no idea about Jasmine’s life and how different their lives will be once they have their babies. In one of the best scenes, Sam says that at 30, she’s relatively young to be having kids and the first of her friends. But for Jasmine, Sam is relatively old, because her own sister was raising two kids by the age of 23. Jasmine is a child raised in the welfare system, and her child will be part of that system as well. Sam, on the other hand, has the freedom to give up work for a few years, but is tortured by the idea of giving up the career she has built. Even their pregnancies are different—Sam can take time to plan and rest; Jasmine has no choice but to finish high school and work after school until her child is born.
And yet, Swanberg and Mercier remain non-judgmental and sympathetic towards both characters. They simply live in completely different worlds, but their friendship is genuinely touching, especially in its evolution from student-teacher to peers. Although she sincerely wants the best for her student, the idea of giving up a career is making Sam not only encourage, but force Jasmine to pursue higher education—unwilling to acknowledge how hard it would be for her to have a child, go to school, and work when she’s completely alone.
It plays not as helpful, sage-like advice that can fix everything but as Sam being unaware of her own privilege, and the movie is better for it. The main tension the film builds to is the choice each of them are forced to make when they finally become parents: what are they doing for themselves vs for their child.
I can’t speak highly enough of the two lead actors in this film. Chicagoan Bean is a newcomer and avoids cliché choices we see from so many new actors. She’s someone burdened with a life we only learn about later in the movie, but when we do, everything makes perfect sense. And Smulders is on a roll recently. Beyond appearing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she was the best part of the film Results earlier this year, and is giving a career best as Sam—and clearly enjoying getting to sink her teeth into the meat of this roll. She never shies away from the character’s flaws and has some great scenes with Bean, along with Anders Holm as her boyfriend and Elizabeth McGovern as her mother (excellent casting), who isn’t thrilled by the pregnancy news.
Earlier this summer, I voiced my genuine frustration with the way blockbusters are using motherhood, with moralizing characters in films such as Jurassic World and noticing how talented actresses like Judy Greer and Rosemarie DeWitt are being wasted in thankless roles. The frustration I have is that while motherhood can provide a meaty storyline and character conflict for talented actors, it seems more and more that “mom” is being used as primary personality trait, rather than one of many descriptions for a character. Which simply isn’t fair. As universal as motherhood can be, no mother has the exact same experience…or pregnancy. There aren’t a lot of films which are willing to really examine that fact or show the conflicts women face when entering that new area of life. This film not only examines it, but seems to relish the opportunity to do so.
Note: Whoever did the airbrushing on the film’s poster should have their computer taken away.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—