“I don’t know what’s going on with the bananas at Trader Joe’s right now”
Yes Kris Swanberg‘s Unexpected revolves around two surprise pregnancies and the mothers-to-be reacting to brand new futures set before them. However, it doesn’t use that premise to build a tower of clichés for us to watch topple to the ground in tragedy or remain erect via zany shenanigans like so many other films utilizing pregnancy as a plot device before it. Instead Swanberg and cowriter Megan Mercier take pains to deliver this unpredictable, anxious, and highly relatable situation with honesty. Who knew that was even possible? Hollywood led me to believe all men turned into angry dickheads blaming their significant other for not insisting they wear a condom and all women turned googly-eyed with glee at the prospect of nine arduous and uncomfortable months. It’s genuinely wonderful to see scripted characters with personalities that aren’t merely caricatured stereotypes.
Society wonders about bad influences and misguided role models on TV and at the movies, but they eat those things up as long as they are able to laugh at them. It’s become such a given for unplanned pregnancies to be a byproduct of promiscuity, ignorance, and/or criminal activity that the many women experiencing one can’t help but feel disappointed in themselves for the situation they’re in. How horrible are we as a species that something we should be celebrating comes with the initial thought: “What’s everyone going to say?” That’s a disappointing precedent because surprises can happen to anyone—even those in a committed, loving relationship. But the reaction is the same guilt-filled fear of going through the experience with an asterisk. The order of events shouldn’t matter, how you adapt and move forward should.
It’s refreshing to see two strong, intelligent women at the center of Unexpected rather than quickly rendered fodder for jokes. Samantha Abbott (Cobie Smulders) is a masters degree-holding science teacher working at an inner city high school due to close thanks to a diminishing budget who’s readying a move into state-wide education planning. Jasmine (Gail Bean) is a 3.8-average senior at that same school who’s preparing to apply to college and do right by the grandmother who raised her since age eleven. These women have ambitious goals, serious relationships, and the emotional desire to one day have a child—just not today. Well, fate dealt them a different hand and both are now months away from having a new life to care for alongside themselves. But it doesn’t have to be the end of the world.
Without all the melodramatic noise comedies like to infuse into this premise, Swanberg is able to focus on the universal drama having a baby brings to everyone regardless of their socio-economic status or order of events. There’s the decision about whether or not giving birth is right for this time and place. Whether or not they can adjust their goals or scrap them altogether. There’s the issue of whether the father is on board, supportive, and a good influence in the here and now. In fact, they need to ensure they’re all those things too. Accepting the reality of the situation intelligently and emotionally are very different and the motives towards that readiness cannot be half cooked. Everything changes once that plus sign appears on a pregnancy test and even though things appear perfect, they never are.
Smulders and Bean perform their roles with an authenticity showcasing their struggles coming to terms. It also makes their friendship real and not another contrived “white savior” doing her good deed for the “poor black girl” thanks to Swanberg and Mercier never positioning the relationship in those terms. The chasm between their economic situations is definitely on display because of the setting and who they are, but what brings them together is the mutual understanding of their pregnancies. You see it in Bean’s Jasmine’s eyes when Smulders’ Samantha bends over in class to throw up. There is empathy. The same goes for the latter after over-hearing in the teachers’ lounge how the former might be with child too. They are scared of what’s coming and the potential ostracism it will provide. Together they can help combat it.
There’s complexity at the heart of everything else that occurs too. We know Samantha’s mom (Elizabeth McGovern) wants the best for her daughter, but the surprise can’t help shake her expectations enough to throw excitement way off course. We know Samantha’s boyfriend John (Anders Holm) loves her and that his pushing her to take time off from her career and stay home is coming from love despite preconceived notions it “actually” means he’s relinquishing his own parenting responsibilities. And as for Jasmine’s boyfriend Travis (Aaron J. Nelson), he isn’t immature and selfish because he is a man. It’s because he’s an eighteen-year old kid. His brief excision from the action is less about his inadequacies and more about her pragmatism and intelligence towards understanding his lack of readiness will do more harm than his presence does good.
This is the stuff romantic comedies containing similar plotlines cut out like a malignant tumor about to spread because they don’t think audiences can be simultaneously challenged and entertained. Well we can. We can see the humor in realistic situations that may eventually devolve into argument or worse because we experience it in our every day lives. We also understand what it’s like to deflect tough decisions we still need to make by focusing our energy on another instead. There’s power in that sort of empathetic symbiosis—seeing someone in your situation feel what you haven’t yet triggering it in yourself. Juxtaposing these two characters provides the room for so much of that, especially when our assumptions point to Samantha as being ready and Jasmine not when the truth might be exactly the opposite.
Their performances invite us in because of their tumultuousness. Until they accept why it is they are afraid, we can only guess. And while we’re probably right in our hypothesis, we’re still far removed from the whole picture because we aren’t life’s authority. Samantha and Jasmine make more mistakes during the course of this film than homeruns and there’s a truth to that that we don’t see enough of in cinema. One thing they do correctly is deciding to trust the other. It may not seem like it at times when anger and frustration divides them, but neither would be nearly as prepared for the next step without the experiences they share together. John bluntly yet aptly yells: “Get over it.” and he’s right. We must get over what’s “wrong” for others and decide what’s best for us.