Published Jul 23, 2015It's always nice to see films portray various types of motherhood, as well as realistic (apparently, pickle juice and smashed-up Cheetos is prime craving food), sympathetic depictions of female characters; last year's excellent Obvious Child remains the definitive film on the reality of unwanted pregnancy and abortion. While many more films explore taking pregnancy to term, they're often either played for laughs or heightened melodrama. Thankfully, Unexpected is neither, but despite this strength, its reluctance to commit to any one focus is not.
Samantha Abbott (How I Met Your Mother's Cobie Smulders, in a welcome meatier role) is an enthusiastic young science teacher at an inner city high school in Chicago that will be closing down by the end of the year. When she discovers she's pregnant, her supportive partner John (Anders Holm) proposes they marry at the courthouse, to the chagrin of her old-fashioned mother (Elizabeth McGovern, who looks more like Smulders than her Downton Abbey kids). Meanwhile, one of Sam's brightest students, college-bound Jasmine (Gail Bean), also discovers that she too is pregnant, and must adjust her dream of going to college to include taking care of her baby, as well as dealing with an immature boyfriend with whom she sees no future. Sam and Jasmine form a friendship that goes beyond that of teacher and student as they attempt to navigate their respective situational difficulties.
Bean plays Jasmine with a quiet bravery and an admirable sense of maturity and optimistic realism, despite the fact that, at time, it feels like the film is relying too heavily on "Black inner city" clichés. And at times, Sam's pregnancy woes seem laughably minor in comparison — squabbles with her mother over baby clothes, with John over being a working mother; realizing the starting date of her dream job coincides with her due date — which make it frustrating that we never get more context around Jasmine's situation, while the film offers plenty around Sam.
The film wisely addresses Sam's privilege right around the time that viewer will wonder if Unexpected is going to take a solid stand on anything, but it's too little, too late. While Unexpected is quiet and meditative, and beautifully shot, with an intimacy that facilitates a warm closeness between the audience and these two women, it touches on too many subjects — the different problems facing white motherhood and black motherhood, female friendship, privilege, poverty, even the Chicago public school system — without full addressing or exploring any of them sufficiently.
In trying to be several movies with promising potential all at once, Unexpected unfortunately ends up just short of great.