Directed by Kris Swanberg
Opens July 24 at Village East Cinemas
The image of a pretty young woman sitting on a toilet is an indie film cliché. In Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected, such a scene comes early: our protagonist, Samantha Abbott (Cobie Smulders) takes a pregnancy test which turns out to be positive, providing the foundation of the story. Samantha is a teacher at an inner-city Chicago high school on the brink of closure, and she quickly learns that one of her best students, Jasmine (Gail Bean), is also pregnant. Both decide to keep their babies and an unlikely bond is formed.
At the film’s core is that question that has nagged feminists for decades: can women have it all? Swanberg’s attempted answers can feel rote. It’s just too obvious a plot point that the dream job Samantha is qualified for would start right after her due date, and that Samantha and her hipster-bearded husband would argue over whether she should work, without their relationship ever really seeming to be at stake. Jasmine’s presence provides both a reality check and an opportunity for Samantha to act as a mentor. The precariousness of her situation is the stuff of an After School Special, and an argument about Jasmine’s future in the final act puts too fine a point on the differences between the two women, when they were obvious all along (curiously, Jasmine, a bright and mostly cheerful girl, is rarely seen socializing with her peers).
Unexpected deserves credit for featuring a relationship between two women that is not often shown. At the same time, though, that relationship, fraught with race and class tension as it is, never really challenges us in a believable way—the film as a whole is enjoyable but insubstantial. “I don’t want my whole identity to be someone’s mom,” Samantha says. Many films are content to leave a female character’s identity at just that. Samantha and Jasmine are both more than just someone’s mom, but still, they are less than we may want them to be. Both of these women feel too much like archetypes for us to become too emotionally invested, though it is sweet to see a rapport develop between them.