You keep waiting and waiting for Unexpected to arrive at its point. It never does. But a funny thing happens while you’re waiting… you come to love and respect these characters a great deal. It’s hard to be mad at director Kris Swanberg’s leisurely stroll towards motherhood, but it’s also hard to recommend to those outside the target demographic. Observant, low-key, and, ultimately, benign, Unexpected coasts by on goodwill and charm, when it could have tackled so much more.
Women have been struggling to balance family and career for decades now. Largely ignored by Hollywood screenwriters, the few stories tackling the lives of career women are heavy on family melodrama and light on workplace minutiae. Rest assured, Unexpected is all minutiae. We see everything in this film; from ultrasounds and baby showers to job interviews and poster presentations. The end result is a film about everything…and nothing at all. If few American films can lay a genuine claim to ‘slice of life’ status, Unexpected certainly qualifies.
The two lives of interest belong to Sam (Cobie Smulders) and Jasmine (Gail Bean). Sam is a 30 year-old science teacher whose inner-city High School will close its doors at the end of the semester. Jasmine is her star pupil; determined to escape her humble beginnings via a big-time college scholarship. Though each is plagued by doubt and uncertainty about their impending life changes, they seem to have a good bead on things. That all changes for Sam, however, when she discovers that she’s pregnant. After a brief bout of denial, which includes blaming her positive pregnancy test on excessive potassium (“I don’t know what’s going on with the bananas at Trader Joe’s… they’re just so big!!”), Sam finally accepts her fate during a tearful ultrasound exam.
Sam and her uber-perfect boyfriend, John (Anders Holm), decide to get married so she can stay at home and raise the baby. For a career-minded woman like Sam, this is a bitter pill to swallow, and she starts covertly investigating possible job openings, including a dream position at the Chicago Field Museum. She bonds with Jasmine (who is also pregnant) as they complete college applications, consume massive quantities of questionable food combinations (pickle juice and Cheetos!), and dabble in pregnant yoga. The rest of Unexpected deals with the stops and starts of Sam coming to grips with her motherhood.
All of this is terribly familiar, of course, but it’s been purged of all hysterical melodrama. Sam is a bright woman who understands, thanks to her upwardly-mobile mother (Elizabeth McGovern), the importance of work to her self-identity. Director Kris Swanberg and her (co)screenwriter, Megan Mercier, are to be commended for a creating a strong, career-minded woman who avoids all the ball-busting clichés. Sam isn’t averse to motherhood or marriage; she just can’t reconcile these new roles with her lifelong ambitions. We’ve heard women in the movies lament, “I don’t want my whole identity to be someone’s mom,” but it sounds refreshingly genuine coming from Sam. By scaling back the dramatic fireworks and focusing on the hopes and dreams of her protagonist, Swanberg adds considerable weight to even the tiniest of choices.
The engine that really makes Unexpected go, however, is Jasmine. Confident and clear in her values, Jasmine still manages to remain vulnerable throughout. There’s no condescension in the approach to her character; she is a “strong Black woman” who still understands the precarious nature of her situation. She stands her ground, but she’s also willing to accept help because that’s the smart thing to do. She’s a fully-realized character, even if her primary purpose is to provide some much needed perspective to Sam. When Jasmine scolds a pouting Sam, “My whole life is disappointment!” you really feel the knife twisting. As Jasmine, Gail Bean more than holds her own with the older Smulders, and looks like an actress to watch in the future.
Still, there’s no avoiding the fact that Unexpected is a desperately thin film that moves at a glacial pace. There are hints of grander themes and alternative perspectives, but they’re ultimately sideswiped in favor of kinder, gentler fare. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, of course, but it feels like a wasted opportunity to explore some complex situations. Swanberg has taken great pains to create nuanced characters that we love and respect. Why not take advantage of that by really letting them tear into the issues facing career women? This understated approach makes the resolution feel uneventful and anti-climactic.
Smulders and Bean highlight a small cast of characters, most of whom are grossly underdeveloped in comparison. We barely get a glimpse of the talented McGovern, which is a shame given her character’s influence on Sam’s worldview. While it’s a welcomed departure to see such a loving and supporting husband, we need a little more backbone from John. Holm does his best with a milquetoast role, but John’s complete subservience to Sam takes away a major element of possible tension.
This lack of tension plagues Unexpected throughout, and undermines the impact of what is otherwise a very affective story. It’s a textbook case of wanting more from a movie than it’s willing to provide. The likeability and chemistry of Smulders and Bean make this lack of ambition tolerable, as you eventually settle into an enjoyable rhythm with their characters. Women in their 20’s who are debating the merits of motherhood will find some interesting tidbits in Unexpected. Everyone else will have to settle for spending a little uneventful quality time with two very intelligent women. Not a bad way to spend an evening, come to think of it.