Mark Reviews Movies

Unexpected

UNEXPECTED

3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kris Swanberg

Cast: Cobie Smulders, Anders Holm, Gail Bean, Elizabeth McGovern

MPAA Rating: R (for language)

Running Time: 1:25

Release Date: 7/24/15


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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 23, 2015

Two women—one in her 30s and the other recently or about to be an official adult by way of her age—discover they're pregnant. It's a surprise for both of them. One is a public school teacher who is about to lose her job when the school where she teaches—along with a number of others—closes at the end of the school year. The other is a senior at that high school who has a solid GPA and is applying to colleges.

Neither of them needs or wants to be considering the prospect of having a child at this moment in their respective lives, but it's happening. Both have decided to see the pregnancy through to completion, and each woman has her own reasons for making that choice.

Unexpected shows itself to be something special during a scene in which these two women discuss the concept of choice. The scene itself consists of fewer than 10 lines of dialogue. The student says she's decided to keep the baby. The teacher asks she's considered her other options. The student states that she has. Between giving the baby up for adoption, having an abortion, or keeping the baby, she has decided to go with the last option. Then the student throws the question back at her teacher: Is she going to keep her baby? The teacher is stunned for a moment, as if she doesn't understand the question. Yes, she has also decided to keep her baby. The student gives a perceptible smirk after that exchange. She knows what that pause, that disbelief, and that certainty mean.

In a matter of less than half a minute, with only about four lines of dialogue in the key section of the exchange and two relatively subtle choices on the part of the two actresses, this scene reveals far more than just one character's decision. The student is black and comes from a struggling neighborhood in the city of Chicago. The teacher is white and lives in a more economically stable part of the city. The teacher drives her boyfriend to the "L" train every workday before driving to the school. The student has to pass through metal detectors and send her bag through an X-ray machine. The teacher walks right by the devices without any hassle.

There is an obvious gap between these two characters that co-writer/director Kris Swanberg starts to establish from the start of the film. That scene about choice is when the film starts to examine that gap in a way that is more than just circumstances. It begins to examine the consequences of those circumstances. That scene is less about choice and more about which character actually has the luxury of not being expected to discuss and justify her choices.

We understand that point, without Swanberg and co-screenwriter Megan Mercier hitting us over the head with it, because their dialogue is concise and considered. We know there's more to what's being said because, as a director, Swanberg allows the scenes room to breathe. We can comprehend exactly what these characters are saying between the lines because the two central performances are so attuned to these characters and their relationship.

The teacher is Samantha, played with genuine compassion and the frustration of uncertainty by Cobie Smulders. Samantha didn't have her life figured out before she became pregnant, but she did have the general outline of a plan. She was going to marry her boyfriend John (Ander Holm) someday, and someday after that, they would start a family. With her job about end, she thinks she has a shot at her dream job. John thinks it would be better if she became a stay-at-home mom. Samantha wants to work but doesn't know if or, if so, when she'll be able to after having the baby.

The student is Jasmine, played by Gail Bean with wisdom and grace beyond the character's years. Jasmine was worried about whether or not she'd be accepted at a college, and now she's not certain if she'll be able to attend anyway. She lives with her grandmother, her older sister, and the sister's two children. The family receives government assistance, and Jasmine works at a grocery store to help earn some household income. Her boyfriend Travis (Aaron J. Nelson) seems supportive, but Jasmine eventually figures out that, while he might make a good father, he might not be the right partner for her.

The film follows the relationship between Samantha and Jasmine as they bond over their shared experiences of pregnancy. It also realizes that the bond is partially artificial, since it's formed primarily on circumstances and coincidence.

Swanberg and Mercier's screenplay is not afraid to address issues of race and, chiefly, class, and more importantly, it's smart enough to do so without any kind of trite condescension. It doesn't assume that Samantha's motives are pure. In fact, it outright questions them. Is she simply helping Jasmine so that she can help some "poor girl," as Samantha's overly attentive mother (Elizabeth McGovern) refers to Jasmine, out of pity? Has Samantha considered the possibility that Jasmine doesn't need or even want her help?

The conflicts here arise because they must—not because of any extraneous plot developments. Samantha and John debate and later argue over what he believes she wants, without actually listening to the fact that she's hesitant to let motherhood define who she is as a person. There's tension between Samantha and Jasmine because the teacher won't listen to the student's concerns. Samantha may not be certain about her own life, but she seems more than happy to tell Jasmine what she believes should be certain in the young woman's life.

This is an intelligent film that speaks volumes about its characters, and it does so with sensitivity to the specifics of their individual experiences. The screenplay gives both characters about equal footing, if not time. Samantha's story does take precedence by the film's final act, and the fact that the shift feels unfair to Jasmine's story tells us a lot about how finely developed these characters are. Unexpected lets us see these characters for who they are, and it challenges us to see them as representative of something more.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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