Kris Swanberg makes a huge leap into the indie mainstream with her delicate and beautiful third feature, “Unexpected.” The logline could sound like a gimmick: A 30-year-old Chicago high-school teacher and one of her students both discover they’re pregnant around the same time, but Swanberg’s film remains utterly down-to-earth. Small-scale and warmhearted in the best ways, this is an accomplished piece of work deserving special consideration in the indie marketplace and the care of a distributor savvy enough to market a story made by and about women.
For something as fundamental to human existence as pregnancy, surprisingly few movies tackle the experience head-on, and those that do are often broad comedies (“Knocked Up,” “Juno”) or horror films (“Rosemary’s Baby”). That’s just one way in which “Unexpected” immediately establishes itself as something different.
Sam (Cobie Smulders) enjoys her job teaching science at an inner-city school, but the building is about to close down and the staff is told to seek employment elsewhere. A listing for her dream job, as a museum staffer who sets curriculum for the district, provides some hope, but she’s quickly sidelined from exploring the opportunity by the discovery that she’s pregnant.
That’s not something she and live-in boyfriend John (Anders Holm) were planning on, and Sam breaks down in tears before she breaks the news. Taking it in stride, John proposes marriage over pancakes the next morning and they head to the courthouse for a shotgun wedding — a decision that goes over badly with Sam’s judgmental mother (Elizabeth McGovern). Looking for someone to connect with, Sam discovers one of her best students, Jasmine (Gail Bean), is also pregnant and immediately offers her support that blurs the line between professional and personal.
What little “drama” there is in the picture derives from Sam’s ambivalence over possibly giving up her career to become a mother, and Jasmine facing a similar choice between going to college or being there for her baby, since the father (Aaron Nelson) needs to “grow up” before he’s ready to assume any responsibility.
“Unexpected” isn’t a movie about huge dramatic turns or conflict — though conflict organically arises through Sam’s and Jasmine’s contrasting backgrounds, personalities and life experience. Everything onscreen has the well-observed quality of a great documentary, enlivened by a rich sense of humor and the fundamental decency of each character. Swanberg and co-writer Megan Mercier have crafted an incredibly generous film that wears its heart on its sleeve but never feels sappy or even sentimental.
There’s a specificity to every little detail — Jasmine mixes pickle juice with a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheeto crumbs for a concoction that makes Sam so sick she has to pull over the car; John can’t contain his glee over finding pink-dinosaur decals to decorate their nursery; Sam’s mother lashes out when her daughter rejects old baby clothes — that make the characters feel like real people. In that respect, “Unexpected” has a kinship with an all-time great Sundance title involving pregnancy, Phil Morrison’s “Junebug.”
It’s also a rare work about women’s lives that allows the main characters to be fully formed. Viewers really get to know these two women, from their time at work/school to their home lives, their family histories to their lovable imperfections. Eighty-some minutes in their company feels all too brief.
The cast couldn’t be better. After years on TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” and a minor role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Smulders announces herself as a full-fledged movie star with a lovingly lived-in turn. Whether she’s breaking up a classroom fight, chatting with a colleague after a union protest or putting a particularly vivid spin on the hoary cliche of a cinematic delivery, Smulders doesn’t hit a false note.
Ditto newcomer Bean, a stage veteran making her major movie debut, who embodies Jasmine as a vibrant, self-assured young woman with a good head on her shoulders and the ability to read Sam’s privilege while still trusting her advice. While Jasmine is black and Sam is white, their differences never boil down to race, with age and economic status instead the key factors.
Holm and McGovern are equally strong in smaller roles: Holm as the ideal picture of a supportive husband and McGovern as a mother more understanding than her daughter realizes. (Plus, the physical resemblance between Smulders and McGovern, who played a young expectant mother herself in John Hughes ’80s comedy “She’s Having a Baby,” is uncanny.)
Tech package is terrific on a low budget, with Dagmar Weaver-Madsen’s lensing feeling both intimate and beautifully composed, Zach Clark’s precise cutting allowing scenes room to breathe, and Keegan Dewitt’s downright lovely score all repping major pluses.