A teacher and her student help each other navigate the challenges of their respective pregnancies in this terrific comedy/drama.
There might be a debate about whether or not life starts at conception, but one thing that is tough to argue is that worry begins at the discovery of pregnancy. From the child’s prenatal health to its ongoing care after childbirth, there is an understandable fret that comes with being a new parent, and it all begins when the little plus sign appears on the home pregnancy test. As if keeping a baby healthy and safe in this world isn’t enough, that worry is compounded by economic factors. Raising a baby isn’t cheap, so earning money is critical. But mother/child bonding time isn’t unlimited either, so making time for the baby is critical as well. Two unique but parallel facets of impending parenthood drive the wonderful story in Unexpected.
Sam (Cobie Smulders) is a high school science teacher in the Chicago Public School System, but she knows her days teaching there are numbered; in an effort to save money, the city plans to shut down her work (along with several other schools). She isn’t worried. She has a happy home life with her live-in boyfriend John (Anders Holm), and a great lead on a dream job for which she is well qualified.
Jasmine (Gail Bean) is a senior in Sam’s science class, and she’s a child with the odds stacked against her. The minority student from the broken home has to do things harder and better than everyone else if she is going to stand a chance at landing a scholarship that will get her out of the city and into college.
When Sam and Jasmine each learn they are unexpectedly pregnant, their lives change course, intersect, and even run parallel as their common situation bonds them. Where those paths diverge and end, and how they both get to where they need to be with an uncertain future, will ultimately define them as individuals and as the unlikeliest of friends.
It’s easy (not right, but easy) to look at the poster for Unexpected—with a pregnant young black girl feeling the belly of a pregnant white woman—and jump to some conclusions about where the film might go with this unlikely duo. Early into the story, once the socioeconomic differences between the characters become clear, the conclusions dig their heels in. Then, something amazing happens. Instead of playing the obvious dichotomies for cheap laughs or overwrought drama, director Kris Swanberg (who co-wrote with Megan Mercier) presents a thoughtful and layered drama that, in an odd sense, is a coming-of-age story where the ages don’t matter.
The dichotomies are there, of course. There’s no hiding the differences in race, age, or tax bracket, and Swanberg knows this. She (rightfully) never makes a big deal of it. There is never a moment where someone overtly says, “Well look at how different we are.” This is the real shrewdness of the storytelling. Rather than waste time stating the obvious, Swanberg lets those major differences speak for themselves, and instead spends her time developing differences that are, simultaneously, cleverly subtle similarities.
Both conceptions were unplanned. Despite the film’s title, this is possibly the most subtle similarity that creates the most impactful difference. It’s also another one Swanberg doesn’t spell out, but upon consideration, when a professional white woman with a live-in boyfriend gets pregnant, it’s viewed differently than when a teenage black girl with a new boyfriend gets pregnant. Both women have mother issues. Sam’s (played by Elizabeth McGovern) is judgmental and controlling; Jasmine’s is absentee. Both women have challenges with the fathers of their children. Sam’s is a nice problem to have in that John wants her to be a stay-at-home mom, but the father of Jasmine’s baby can’t make the time to go to the ultrasound. The issues are the same, but wildly different at the same time.
Other areas of their respective lives are structured this way or, more impressively, develop this way over the course of the film. As all of this sneaky comparing and contrasting goes on, a special bond forms between Sam and Jasmine that is part teacher/student, part mother/daughter, part sisters and BFFs. Their relationship never feels contrived, and it’s thanks to the great performances and chemistry of the leads that it works so well.
Smulders, best known for playing Robin Scherbatsky on TV’s How I Met Your Mother and Agent Hill in several of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, gives a wonderful performance as a woman whose fairly ordered life is thrown into utter chaos. Smulders nicely covers the range of hormonally charged emotions, and when she has a funny line to deliver, she delivers it perfectly. (There’s a line about the bananas at Trader Joe’s that slays.) She plays slightly overbearing—but all with the best intentions, of course—deftly. Gail Bean is the perfect complement to Smulders. There’s a battle between hope and despair raging inside Jasmine, and Bean knows how to convey that battle in proper measure at all times. Bean makes Jasmine the kid you want to root for. Their chemistry together is beautiful.
Unexpected might be a clever title for this film, as it’s something that not only describes the surprise pregnancies of its two lead characters but also the unpredictable path their friendship takes. That said, it also summarizes the warm drama, genuine humor, and textured depth of the film.