Sundance 2015 features many, many films regarding women trying to get pregnant or trying to deal with being pregnant (notably, there are no women trying not to be pregnant, unlike last year’s breakout hit “Obvious Child“). Kris Swanberg’s latest feature “Unexpected” tells the story of two unexpected pregnancies and the ways in which these women navigate their choices and futures with a baby on the way. Cobie Smulders plays Sam, a science teacher at an inner city Chicago high school. Almost instantly she discovers that she’s pregnant, and although she’s got everything she needs —a loving live-in boyfriend John (Anders Holm), and easy maternity leave because the school’s closing down— she’s still incredibly anxious and doesn’t know what to do about the pregnancy.
At the same time, she discovers that her best student Jasmine (Gail Bean) is also pregnant. This upsets Sam even more, as she expects Jasmine to go to college and lift herself up out of inner city life. In many ways, Jasmine is a bit more prepared to be a mom than Sam, already having been being an aunt. The two bond over college applications and prenatal yoga, but Sam encourages Jasmine to apply to her own alma mater University of Illinois, even though she’ll have to bring her baby with her as a college freshman.
Smulders embodies the anxieties of women who want to retain their identities and autonomy while also being a mom. She struggles with the idea of not working as a scientist or a teacher, though she knows that trying to work and also having a newborn will be difficult. The real discovery is newcomer Gail Bean, whose performance is lovely, nuanced and intense. Despite her ambitions, Jasmine is resigned to the reality of her circumstances, which doesn’t mean she’s going to give up her goals, just that she’s going to have to achieve them differently.
If there’s any criticism to be made of “Unexpected,” it’s that some of the film’s larger conflicts are too easily resolved. Unmarried couple? No problem —there’s a way to fix that. First choice college not realistic? There’s always the second. Holm is charming in this low-key role, but unfortunately his character is a little too “Perfect Husband” to be believable. The real conflict is in Jasmine and Sam’s reconciling of themselves as individuals and mothers, and the ways in which these struggles clash within their friendship. And yet that is also too easily remedied.
Troublingly, given the inner city school setting, the race and class issues that “Unexpected” wants to address are also too easily swept away. Sam mentions a few concerns about her school closing and kids dropping out, and there are hints of financial difficulty with regard to Jasmine’s situation, but that topic disappears. Sam wants to help her students, but she also easily gets caught up in her yuppie mom life. The diverse representation is refreshing, but it can’t quite dig into the issues that it brings up and that feels like a missed opportunity.
Despite those issues, it’s nice to see a film like “Unexpected,” where not only is choice addressed (if briefly), but questions of who women are, who mothers can be and what they can do are pondered seriously. At Sundance, Swanberg mentioned that the story was inspired by working in Chicago public schools, as well as her experience being pregnant and having a former student get pregnant. But perhaps the film shouldn’t have hewn so close to reality. “Unexpected” is sweet and the portrait of the friendship is lovely, but it also feels too slight. [B]