Four years ago, Joe and Kris Swanberg had a baby. In response, they did what Swanbergs do: They made films about it. Joe’s arrived last year. In Happy Christmas, he and his real-life infant son appeared onscreen together, though their story was filtered through that of his character’s slacker sister. This week, it’s his wife’s turn. The comedy Unexpected collapses disappointingly even as it points in an intriguing new direction for its maker.
The main character is Samantha Abbott (Cobie Smulders), a science teacher at an inner-city Chicago high school that’s scheduled to close down permanently at the end of the school year. When she finds out that she’s pregnant she’s not happy about it because she was thinking about applying for a dream job developing the science curriculum for the Field Museum of Natural History. Clinging to the belief that a high potassium diet might have skewed her pregnancy test, she says through tears, “I had a banana with my yogurt this morning, and I don’t know what’s going on with the bananas at Trader Joe’s!” Her husband (Anders Holm) assumes that she’s going to be a stay-at-home mom. Then she finds out that one of her star students, Jasmine Davis (Gail Bean), is also pregnant and thinking of giving up her dreams to go to college.
One of the defining characteristics of the so-called “mumblecore” movement that the Swanbergs were associated with was that the characters tended to be all white people. I never saw much difference between mumblecore and the rest of the low-budget indie film world. Anyway, it’s gratifying that this film spends as much time following Jasmine as it does with Sam, showing us that even though Sam and her husband aren’t rich, their experience of pregnancy is much different from Jasmine’s. Sam all too easily comes to impose her own frustrations and dreams on Jasmine, becoming hellbent on getting her into the University of Illinois when Jasmine has serious misgivings about leaving her friends and family in Chicago and trying to attend classes while raising a child.
Still, the most, uh, surprising part of this film is the way in which it falls apart in the last 15 minutes or so. We get enough of a picture of Sam’s white privilege without having Swanberg and Megan Mercier’s script spell it out for us in her argument with Jasmine after the university puts up an insurmountable financial roadblock. Swanberg is wrestling with the same issues of career vs. family that Hollywood hacks have gone to the mat with, and despite her personal experience with those questions, she doesn’t provide any insights deeper than the ones from those awful mainstream women’s films. Smulders’ straightforward intelligence is nice to have, but she can’t pull the movie free of the morass that it entangles itself in. The note of social and racial consciousness in Unexpected is a new and welcome development for Kris Swanberg. Its ultimate failure isn’t fatal. It just means that she needs to try again.
Starring Cobie Smulders and Gail Bean. Directed by Kris Swanberg. Written by Megan Mercier and Kris Swanberg. Rated R.