“It’s not how I thought it would happen.”
No matter what we might think, we are never going to experience a journey alone. There is no such thing as a solo venture in our great wide world. Moments and time are shared currency. Unexpected, a surprising little movie with big heart, shows that co-owned path through a joint pregnancy; one a teacher and the other a graduating senior. As a male, I can’t imagine or even empathize with the emotional and physical change of it all, but the film proves powerful by making these transitions personal, relatable, and about the literal human endeavor to create new life. Unexpected is twee and honest and insightful with just enough staying power to resonate.
A teacher at a soon to be closing Chicago high school in the Lincoln Park district, Samantha Abbott (Cobie Smulders) is in a bit of inner turmoil. She must look for a new job while telling employers she can’t start right away. A baby limits her prospects. Her husband John (Anders Holm) is the kind of significant other you’d find in a cheesy love movie: supportive, kind, attentive. Conversely, Samantha’s student Jasmine (Gail Bean) has it much rougher. She hopes to go to college but can’t do school, class, and be a mom all at once. And her boyfriend is too busy partying to let a child force him to become a man as Jasmine had hoped. They come from different sides of the tracks, running on rails going in opposite directions, only to meet up at the same final destination. Unexpected veers a little too far into a pseudo mother-daughter relationship between the two, but their interaction seems genuine. It’s a friendship through and through.
Directed and co-written by Kris Swanberg, married to the prolific filmmaker Joe Swanberg, Unexpected is entirely different and its own style. Joe specializes in the mumblecore genre with a focus on improvisation and long takes; Kris uses a tactical precision. The opening is representative of the film as a whole. Samantha hides in the bathroom, searching for a paternity test and shaking an empty box. We hear John off-screen say, “Hey Sam.” It’s less a statement and more of an inquiry. And she looks up to reply with a frustrated, “Yeah.” It lasts all of 20 seconds and still manages to introduce us to the central conflict, establish the main character, and hint at what she is experiencing mentally. The script itself takes some turns for the worse towards the all too obvious ending, but it always has its sensibilities in the right place.
It is important, one could even say life-and-death for a movie, that the film itself cares enough to care about its characters. And that is what Unexpected does best, along with acknowledging the power of consequence. Not only do these people feel real, we know that they do exist. Somewhere out there these lives are actually being lived. That assertion is presumptuous, but it is also the truth, which unsurprisingly comes from a movie that is never afraid to side with convention while maintaining its moral integrity. The success of the film is a direct result of the performance by Cobie Smulders. She makes Samantha exactly how a woman in her situation should be. She’s vulnerable and strong, maternal with fears of becoming overly parental. It’s a scary ride, but Smulders holds us all the way through Unexpected, a movie about the new life that comes from the wonder and awe of a new life.
“But let me tell you, it’s so worth it.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5