Note: This article was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
The ability to make babies is one of the defining differences between the sexes, but it isn’t the same for all women. In Unexpected, director Kris Swanberg attempts to explore how two women in radically different stages of life experience an unplanned pregnancy. Unfortunately, its modest ambitions and good intentions can’t make up for a middling script.
Cobie Smulders stars as Samantha, a high school science teacher who accidentally winds up pregnant and forms a close bond with Jasmine (Gail Bean), a pregnant senior with a bright academic future. With her school due to close at the end of the year, Samantha struggles with her boyfriend (Anders Holm) about whether to pursue other career options or be a stay-at-home mom, while Jasmine has to weigh the pros and cons of pursuing a college degree as a teen mom. It’s a premise rife with potential for dramedy, provided one can suspend his or her disbelief that a teacher would have time to hang out with a student on weekends (not to mention the inherent ethical concerns).
Unfortunately, that potential never quite comes to fruition. Unexpected has its heart in the right place, but it ultimately can’t decide what it wants to be. Is it a character study of a woman coping with the recognition that she resents her unborn child? An exploration of how the demands of the job market are unfair to new mothers? Perhaps it’s using pregnancy as a lens through which to critique income inequality? Or wait, is it really a commentary on “white savior” narratives, in which a white person of privilege learns a valuable life lesson by befriending a poor person of color?
There are elements of all those themes onscreen, yet co-writers Swanberg and Megan Mercier merely acknowledge them before moving on to other less interesting conflicts. The result is a film that flirts with greatness in spurts yet still feels inconsequential. A scene in which Smulders breaks down during an ultrasound, communicating a mixture of fear, love, hatred, and guilt, hints at emotional complexities that are then pushed aside in favor of other concerns. Likewise, the film doesn’t shy away from showing how Samantha’s socio-economic status allows her to approach her pregnancy with certain advantages, while Jasmine can barely afford to eat for two, let alone think about nutrition. Unfortunately, this just makes Samantha’s conflicts feel even more weightless — her career aspirations and family arguments seem downright petty when viewed alongside the struggles of a poverty-stricken teen mom.
To their credit, the actors often manage to elevate certain contrivances in the script, bringing genuine pathos to exchanges that otherwise feel unearned. Smulders, arguably best known for her work on How I Met Your Mother, deftly conveys a whirlwind of emotions, striking the perfect balance between Samantha’s recognition of her mistakes and her stubborn refusal to change. The breakout performance, however, is Bean, whose Cheshire grin conveys joy and playful snark in equal measure, and she adds layers of dimension to a character who might otherwise feel flat due to undercooked subplots involving the father of her child and her broken home. The same can’t be said for supporting players Holm and Elizabeth McGovern, who are wasted as Samantha’s family members; their talents can’t make up for one-note characterization.
Indeed, though there are clear attempts to explore the nuances of pregnancy and circumstance, the end result is surprisingly straightforward. For a film supposedly focused on the parallel lives of two unlikely friends, an awful lot of time is spent on conventional dramatic beats, from family disagreements to an obligatory third-act blowout that feels unearned. Unexpected can’t quite navigate the intersection of its characters’ internal and external conflicts, and as a result, it never lives up to the promise of its title.