Note: This review was originally published back in March 2015 as part of our coverage for the SXSW Film Festival.
Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected is fine. It’s a nice Chicago-based movie that knows exactly what it is, what it wants to do, and how it wants to go about getting there. Remove a few uses of the word “fuck,” and it could be marketed as a family comedy, but what better way is there to react to a surprise pregnancy? Swanberg and co-writer Megan Mercier tell us a tale of not one, but two such pregnancies and their effect on two women who come from different backgrounds. This is a good device; sometimes three movies’ worth of material work better as a single feature film.
Movie #1: Samantha Abbott (Cobie Smulders) is a teacher at a Chicago public school that is closing down at the end of the school year. After trying to convince herself otherwise by listening to words of “wisdom” on the internet, she gives in and accepts that she is pregnant. John (Anders Holm) is her boyfriend and father of the child, the kind of guy who proposes by way of breakfast with an engagement ring on top. They have to contend with an overbearing mother (Elizabeth McGovern, on vacation from Downton Abbey) and career decisions: Does Sam go back to work immediately or become a stay-at-home mom? And whose decision is that? And haven’t we seen this kind of movie before?
Movie #2: Jasmine (Gail Bean) is a smart high school student about to graduate, with aspirations of attending Illinois University. She, too, is pregnant and must figure out how to go to college with a newborn in tow, whether or not the baby’s father would make a good partner going forward, and other issues that kids on the south side have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. Can she have it all, or is that even possible? She enjoys dribbling pickle juice into a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, shaking up the bag, and drinking from it. The film’s writers apparently wish for this writer to become ill in a movie theater, as well. And haven’t we seen this kind of movie before?
Movie #3: The very real issue of Chicago public schools closing down at a disturbing rate.
We’ve seen enough films centered on the first two plots, but with the added narrative of schools shutting down, Swanberg is able to navigate current issues from a fresh starting point. Bean’s performance as Jasmine perfectly balances the attitudes of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood and the maturity that follows shortly thereafter. Her chemistry with Smulders borders on the well-worn idea of the “white savior” before Swanberg and Mercier wisely call Sam out on this. The Blind Side this is not. Much like John means well with his advice to Sam, Sam also means well as a friend/teacher/mentor to Jasmine. Everyone realizes that the person most affected by the situation is the one that must find their own path to fulfillment.
Swanberg and her writer/director husband Joe are quickly becoming Chicago’s best representatives on film. Kris pours a lot of genuine city love into Unexpected by way of location shoots (trains, museums, Lincoln Square) and Midwestern beer (at least one Anti-Hero spotted on a coffee table). Her use of Chicago doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated. If you’re going to sell an optimistic movie, better to use real locations as opposed to sets built on soundstages far, far away.
Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) and Holm (Workaholics) are galaxies away from their roles as TV comedy characters. They are as likeable as Bean, and, come to think of it, so is every single student at the school Smulders teaches. I can’t think of a nicer student body than the one featured in this film. Therein lies the issue with Unexpected: it’s nice, but at times it’s too nice. Things seem to work out for the main characters, no matter what blows they’re dealt. On the other hand, not every movie needs to be so damn grim. Unexpected most certainly is not. Although it includes a very Wet Hot American Summer/“Next time, you drive” moment near its conclusion, it manages to be sweet and not saccharine. While Unexpected may be too sunny for its own good at times, its sincerity always shines through.