I have a semi-truckload of issues when it comes to adding another job to my life’s resume – the title of “mother.” On most days you can find me caving to crippling bouts of self-doubt, losing myself in a tailspin of questions like, “Am I capable of being a paragon of strength, wisdom and knowledge for a tiny person?” “How will this change my lifestyle?” “What will happen to my identity/ career/ marriage?” My internal monologue can be deafening and defeating. Co-writer/ director Kris Swanberg’s UNEXPECTED connects with my soul like no other film has on this issue by giving a voice to my fears about motherhood and providing a warm, assured hug at the end of the journey. Yielding poignancy, heartswells, laughter and tears in equal measure, this diamond shines bright.
It’s almost a day like any other when Sam (Cobie Smulders) discovers she’s pregnant. Uncertain of quite a few things in her life, the timing couldn’t be more awful. She’s at a crossroads; her job as a high-school science teacher is coming to an end as the school is closing and her dream job designing curriculum would now be thrown into jeopardy because of the baby’s impending arrival. Hubby John (Anders Holm), while supportive, is approaching this with an annoying amount of certainty and realism – which is more than she’s currently equipped with. Plus, her mother Carolyn (Elizabeth McGovern, who also grappled with motherhood in SHE’S HAVING A BABY) is making things difficult, chastising Sam for not going the traditional route. Sam finds a kindred spirit in Jasmine (Gail Bean), a promising student who is in the same physical condition/ emotional conundrum. As their friendship deepens over pre-natal yoga classes and Tastee Freeze milkshakes, the duo seem to have dodged life’s curveballs – well, at least temporarily.
UNEXPECTED is disarmingly honest about its subject matter. Swanberg and co-writer Megan Mercier handle situations with the utmost heartfelt sincerity – never sacrificing characters for the sake of manufactured melodrama (of which there’s none here). This never collapses into contrivance or cliché. There’s a light-hearted ribbing with Jasmine and Sam’s preconceived notions about each other. We can sense where everyone is coming from; John and Carolyn come at this ideal but poorly timed situation with candid positivity. Sam and Jasmine’s struggle with their future insecurities feels real. Both represent the push-pull of being a stay-at-home mom versus working mom; one wants to continue on with her planned career goals whereas the other knows, having been through a similar situation, that it’s not a possibility. It exposes the hard truths about where we as women derive our identities from.
Smulders is absolutely incredible, shedding light that Marvel is squandering her talent as a side-kick. But if that paycheck allows her to keep taking gigs like this, I’m all for it. She handles the subtle complexities, humor and vulnerabilities with the greatest of ease. Her frequent on-screen partner, Bean, is a revelation. She’s an assured performer, peppering her role with staggering nuance.
Probably the most amazing aspect of this cinematic gem is that there’s no “bad guy” in either of these two protagonists’ lives. Their mothers, the school district and significant others (all stereotypical obstacles in after-school specials and Tyler Perry films) aren’t holding them back in the least bit. Self-generated emotions like doubt, fear, and guilt provide the incredibly resonant conflict. It’s refreshing to see dramatic stakes without any manipulation or traditional artifice. Hollywood, please take notes from this unexpected pleasure.
4.5 out of 5
UNEXPECTED opens in theaters and is available On Demand on July 24.