A juxtapositional glance at the glowering inequity of being “pregnant while black,” Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected explores the subject with little ado, and to a questionable effect. Lead by the increasingly-omnipresent Cobie Smulders and the subtly-dynamic newcomer Gail Bean, Swanberg’s film is content merely glancing at the perceived differences, feeling no need to explore or comment on any. Directorial finesse and charming performances prove to be no match against a tonally ambivalent script full of stale one-liners and phoned-in heart.
Already shouldered with the many burdens of teaching science in a soon-to-be-closed Chicago public school, Samantha Abbott (Cobie Smulders) discovers that she is also, unexpectedly (this is where the brilliance of the movie’s title comes to light), expecting a child. Pushing aside any discussion as to what options may be available, a marriage to long-time boyfriend John (a scruffy Anders Holm) seems a forgone conclusion. Finding out her star pupil, Jasmine (Gail Bean), has also been fortuitously knocked up, Samantha’s life regains its equilibrium when the two find commonalities in their shared “condition.”
Setting its focus primarily on the wavering relationship between Samantha and her boyfriend-turned-husband, Unexpected serves as a meta commentary on society’s heightened concern for pregnant white women. We get brief glimpses at the various struggles faced by Jasmine and her family (lack of pregnancy support from the government, a weak partner and the complete lack of interest or concern shown by everyone except for Samantha), seemingly provided only to lend additional context to her life — while also injecting some unintentional comedy when Samantha is shown to be having a hard time. The only real payoff for the teenage girl’s drudgery is a single line exclaimed in order to finally put Samantha in her place: “You’ve gotten everything you’ve ever wanted in your life. My whole life is disappointment.” In the end, Samantha’s conflict to maintain an identity independent of “wife” and “mother” are given equal treatment to Jasmine’s fight to end the cycle of poverty and simply earn enough to feed herself and her baby.
Although the script carries a distinctly feminist message, it is ultimately far too dull to pack any lasting punch. Emotion has been almost completely sucked out by inconsistent attempts at humor and Smulders’ coy self-assuredness (the chance that, instead of it being her own interpretation of the character, these quirks were a product of the screenplay leaves the blame largely unassigned). Dialogue is labored and progressively more monotonous, with tertiary characters becoming little more than broken records — John never shuts up about Samantha being a stay-at-home mom, and her mother never ceases to be anything less than a thorn in the couple’s side.
Throughout Unexpected, little is ever gained or lost, ultimately raising the question (albeit a rather absurd one when considering film): for whom was this made, and what is its intended purpose? It is either an incredibly muted criticism of America’s disparate treatment of pregnant women of varying races, or an “awareness piece” for those still blithely oblivious to just how inhospitable the U.S. can be for poverty-stricken mothers.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.