SXSW FILM 2015
By Linc Leifeste | March 18, 2015
Director: Kris Swanberg
Writers: Megan Mercier, Kris Swanberg
Starring: Cobie Smulders, Gail Bean, Anders Holm, Aaron J. Nelson, Elizabeth McGovern
Let me get this out of the way early: we all know that Hollywood has some problems, and high up on the list is the paucity of films directed by women. One of the refreshing things about the South by Southwest Film Festival is that it doesn’t seem to have this same problem. A case in point is Kris Swanberg’s sweetly beautiful Unexpected, the story of two women in very different places in life who both find themselves facing an unexpected pregnancy at the same time. And another problem high up on that list is a striking lack of significant roles for black actors. So it’s refreshing to see a film directed by a woman, focusing on pregnancy from a female perspective (and not a comedy!), and featuring multiple strong roles for black actors.
Samantha (Cobie Smulders) is a teacher at an inner city Chicago high school. In her early 30’s, she’s in a committed relationship with her live-in boyfriend John (Anders Holm). Despite not taking precautions to avoid pregnancy, she is emotionally blindsided when she learns she’s expecting. She goes home and emotionally breaks the news to John, who despite being equally stunned, is supportive and loving in his response. The pregnancy prompts him to pop the question the next morning, which results in mixed emotions from Samantha, as she doesn’t want the pregnancy to be the impetus for his proposal. But they’re soon married, much to the dismay of Samantha’s judgmental mother (Elizabeth McGovern), who never imagined her daughter’s pregnancy and marriage to play out in this fashion.
Samantha’s pregnancy soon becomes obvious to her class when she finds herself battling morning sickness in a very public way. Shortly thereafter she finds out that one of her senior students, Jasmine (Gail Bean), is also pregnant. Jasmine is one of Samantha’s best students and one of several that she has been counseling on the college admission process. Fueled by good intentions and blinded by her own life experiences, Samantha is determined to find a way for Jasmine to not have her college plans interrupted by her motherhood, even if it means not taking a realistic look at Samantha’s life situation and goals.
Despite being younger and in a more dire economic situation, in some ways Jasmine finds herself more prepared for motherhood than Samantha. Samantha is an only child who has never spent time around children while Jasmine comes from a larger family and knows her way around a baby. But Jasmine’s situation, obviously, is also less than ideal. About to graduate high school, from a poor family, pregnant from a boyfriend who is immature and not particularly interested in being a father or life partner, she has every reason to be stressed but seems to be taking the idea of motherhood in stride. Let me add that Bean’s strong yet delicate performance as Jasmine is strikingly good.
In Unexpected, Swanberg does a beautiful job of subtly looking at issues of race and class in the interaction between the two women as the relationship eventually becomes strained because of Samantha’s overly eager attempts to steer Jasmine’s choices. Likewise, the film’s realistic presentation of a couple struggling with gender roles and expectations is thought provoking without being judgmental or preachy. Swanberg presents their story as one where nobody has bad intentions, instead they love and respect each other but are struggling to get it right while walking that tightrope of looking out for their own interests while also trying to consider the wants and needs of their partner.