You would think a pregnancy will be the last thing you call “unexpected” if you had sex without protection. As to whether the pregnancies we encounter in Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected are actually unexpected I cannot say, but what we are sure off is the pregnancies at the centre of this film could have picked a better time to show up. Cobie Smulders stars here as Samantha, an inner-city high school teacher in Chicago who has just found out she is pregnant. At almost the same time we learn her best student with college aspirations, Jasmine (Gail Bean), is also pregnant.
This forms the basis of a quite unlikely friendship as the white over qualified science teacher with a comfortable life and the black student with an unstable childhood living with her grandmother in the lesser side of town are united by similar circumstances. The film avoids the well-trodden path a film in this position could have taken as Samantha and Jasmine are seen to take the pregnancy in pleasant stride. They stuff their mouths together, start yoga classes together and are generally there for each other projecting a real organic bond of affection that elevates this film above the obnoxious white saviour trope, whilst also conveying awareness of it.
There are some interesting dynamics between Samantha and Jasmine that slowly play out, giving this film some nuanced grounding. Samantha encourages all her students to go to college and aspire for something more. She inevitably becomes actively involved in Jasmine’s college pursuit, with the University of Illinois as her target and she pushes her to make a better life for herself and her baby. However as we begin to take a closer look at Samantha’s life, some cracks start to appear. I mentioned earlier she was overqualified for a teaching position. She too aspires for something more in life, a desired job with a museum, but appears to be settling, especially with the pregnancy on the way.
Fate appears to be nudging her in the direction of her desire, as the predominately black school where she teaches is shutting down putting her out of a job. She is almost in the best position to take a crack at the museum job, but alas, the pregnancy starts to serve as more than a bond between her and Jasmine as it slowly becomes a stumbling block with reality setting in. As brilliant a student Jasmine is (she holds a sweet 3.8 grade point) her college hopes may also be in jeopardy with the baby on the way. Some of the age old questions surrounding working women and pregnancy rear their head. Samantha debates the merits of staying home with the baby versus pursuing her desired job at the museum. And her boyfriend (Anders Holm) feels the pregnancy will be a welcome break for her – feel free to have a jolly laugh, women reading this review.
This is one of the films I feel only women could have gotten right. Swansberg employs great deftness in telling this story and projecting the parallels between our two central characters. You get the sense Samantha fears being just another woman held back by motherhood, but Jasmine actually bucks the trend. She isn’t afraid of being just another black child held back by teenage pregnancy, but instead fears for the early years of her child and the stresses that her choices may bring their way. The film remains thoroughly engaging thanks to the solid script and strong performances grounded in the earnest chemistry between Smulders and the buoyant Bean in her first starring role.
Swanberg isn’t going for cheap comedy here. Neither is she looking to weigh our spirits down with heavy handed drama. She maintains a steady tone of light-heartedness and understatement, even when the major avenues of conflict rear their head. The most impressive thing this film does is give its characters a genuine voice that audience will respect and connect to.