Director: Kris Swanberg
Stars: Cobie Smulders, Gail Bean
3 (out of 5) Globes
There are two movies in “Unexpected.” One is a refreshingly grouchy movie about pregnancy, which views it not as a miracle but as a curse that heaps horrors upon the body and emotions, messes up women’s careers and summons up latently repressive attitudes in otherwise doting men. The other is an examination of class that tries to be a breakdown of white liberal guilt that mostly winds up reinforcing it. The second movie is the riskier and more ambitious, but the first is more successful, in part because it tries to do less, in part because its specific plaints have rarely been aired in the movies.
Nearly as alert and enjoyably grumpy as she was as a sweary fitness instructor in Andrew Bujalski’s “Results,” Cobie Smulders plays Samantha, a teacher at a low-income Chicago school that is about to close. Adding to her vocational woes is she’s been knocked up, forcing her and John (Anders Holm), her longtime live-in boyfriend, to go next level. While she deals with morning sickness and fluctuating neuroses and fears over trying to line up a new job around her maternity leave, she befriends Jasmine (Gail Bean), one of her students, who also has just gotten leftfield preggers and has considerably fewer options than Samantha ever did.
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Samantha’s attempts to help Jasmine, insisting that college is a must and can be achievable with some sacrifices, help explore not only her guilt but her guilt over her guilt. That her help doesn’t go as swimmingly as it should is a nice touch, but “Unexpected” still winds up more about Samantha than it does about Jasmine, despite Bean’s heroic, subtle attempts to make her a flesh-and-blood person. The film fares much better as a portrait of the unpleasant sides of pregnancy, particularly the idea that even a progressive mate like John, who thinks the world of her and unfailingly makes himself helpful, would still insist his partner not even think about returning to the work force. He’s not a villain, just someone reacting unreflectively from instinct built into his DNA by society.
These are strong, personable touches in what still plays like a safe, standard-issue indie — the kind that have been made since the 1980s. The writer-director is Kris Swanberg, whose own husband is Joe Swanberg, maker of outside-the-box, resourceful, experimental features that rebelled against the low-budget norm. “Unexpected” is the low-budget norm, slightly more polished and locked-down than her husband’s own attempts to inch closer to the mainstream, with “Drinking Buddies” and “Happy Christmas.” “Unexpected” is clean and safe; even during scenes caught on the fly, which should ooze an iota of chaos, seem tame. There’s even an overly pleasant score that sounds like it was produced by a program meant to generate Sundance fodder. Only her actors muss up the regimented boxes of this dramedy, giving it a life that it might not, with other actors, have had.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge