Review: Unexpected (Sundance 2015)
PLOT: Samantha (Cobie Smulders) is a thirty-year-old teacher at an under-funded inner-city Chicago high school. With her school on the verge of closing, Samantha discovers that she's pregnant, a predicament she shares with her favorite student, the seemingly college-bound Jasmine (Gail Bean).
REVIEW: UNEXPECTED is the perfect antidote to some of the darker Sundance fare. While indie films often can't help but revel in the very worst of human behavior, this takes the opposite tact, telling a hopeful story where everyone involved just wants to do the best they can and help whomever they can along the way, even if the message suggests setting yourself up as someone's savior may ultimately be misguided and even unnecessary.
Co-writer/director Kris Swanberg is actually the wife of director Joe Swanberg, and it's interesting to contrast the films each had playing at Sundance this year as their styles could not be more different. Joe Swanberg's films embrace a loose improvisational style, while Kris' film is much more focused, telling a tight, compact story – although one thing they do share is that their characters have an air of authenticity that can't be faked.
This is an especially strong vehicle for HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER star Cobie Smulders. Playing it mostly straight (although not oppressively so) Smulders is excellent in a layered, three-dimensional part. Playing a well-educated professional on the verge of a great career, Smulders hits all the right notes as a woman who – while happy to be an expectant mother – is troubled by the fact that her career goals will have to be sidelined for several years as a result. Her boyfriend (Anders Holm) is absolutely supportive, but unlike her, he doesn't have to choose between a baby and a career- he can have it all. That Swanberg's film is so empathetic to both sides is major, and it's worth noting how strikingly different this depiction of expectant motherhood is in contrast to mainstream Hollywood fare like WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING.
The heart of the film centers around Samantha's relationship with Jasmine, a bright, college-bound student whose priorities are shifted when she discovers she's pregnant. Much of the tension comes from Samantha's hellbent efforts to arrange Jasmine's life so she can attend college and be a mother. To Swanberg's credit, Smulders is far from your prototypical Hollywood savior, with her efforts often coming as unwanted and perhaps even unnecessary, even though it's clear her heart is in the right place. The chemistry between Smulders and the excellent Gail Bean is terrific, and the dynamic between the two feels authentic, in that Bean, while appreciative, is suspicious, while Smulders' character feels like she has all the answers – which clearly she doesn't. Neither is right, neither is wrong.
While obviously a small film, UNEXPECTED is nonetheless a Sundance delight which shows an interesting, dramatic side to Smulders and is an extremely compassionate, focused effort from Swanberg, who's certainly a director to keep an eye on. This is a real sleeper and absolutely worth seeing.