UNEXPECTED screened as part of the US Dramatic Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. For additional screen times, head here.
Let’s just get this out of the way first: you might say Unexpected is unexpectedly good. Get it? GET IT?! Okay, I’m done now, I promise.
I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting (sorry, sorry), but this sweet, thoughtful film really resonated with me. Everything about it—the characters, the story, the cinematography—is elegant, lacking in pretense, and so damn grounded in reality. In one word, it’s refreshing.
The film doesn’t waste any time getting started. We’re introduced to Samantha (Cobie Smulders) as she is Googling “pregnancy symptoms” and checking out how sore her boobs are (real talk: we’ve all been there, ladies). She’s a science teacher at a low-income school in Englewood (Chicago) that is about to be shut down. With a potential dream job on the horizon and a boyfriend (Anders Holm as John) she hasn’t had the “future talk” with, this was so not part of the plan. Also, the bananas at Trader Joe’s have been really big lately and that is super weird and probably has something to do with her pregnancy.
Despite all of her fears, Samantha finds herself propelling with a rapid-fire pace into the future. John proposes, they get married, and she’s planning on being a stay-at-home mum. When Samantha finds out her best student, Jasmine (Gail Bean)—destined for college greatness—is also pregnant, she takes it upon herself to make sure she gets into college. The two form a friendship (prenatal yoga is the perfect bonding activity, guys) and Samantha feels like she’s doing something right. Which is good, because she’s not feeling like anything else in her life is right. She’s still struggling with the thought of becoming a stay-at-home mum and stepping away from her career. And then when Jasmine starts to pull away from Samantha’s “perfect plan” for her (teens these days), it all comes crashing down.
An audience member made a comment about what I think is the most important thing about this movie: nobody is right or wrong about their opinions regarding motherhood, and nobody is ever the villain. John wants Samantha to stay home because he thinks it would be easiest for her. Samantha is terrified of losing who she is and feels guilty for not wanting to just be a mum. Her own mum is angry that her daughter is “throwing her career away,” but also acknowledges that between going back to work or staying home, both are a sacrifice. Jasmine leaves her boyfriend because he has growing-up to do and she doesn’t want to be raising two kids, and moreover, she isn’t sure if going away to college is best for her and her baby.
There also isn’t any huge “conflict” in the film, other than making choices and living your life. To an outsider, the decision to stay home or try to go back to work or what the eff to do with your new family is just a decision, but to a new mum, it is the biggest and scariest decision of her life. And we don’t talk about that enough—about women and motherhood and expectations and trying to find a balance and “have it all.” Unexpected tackles these themes with not just one story, but two: two completely different women from different backgrounds with different needs and different support systems and different lives. This movie is telling us that it is okay to trust that both of these women can, and will, and should, make their own decisions for their futures and their families.
Kris Swanberg expertly directs these stories in a way that is honest and thoughtful and delicate and beautiful and sweet, but like the good kind of sweet when you’re having a nice dessert, not piles of candy sweet. (You feel me?) Smulders is also absolutely amazing. She proved her sitcom chops on How I Met Your Mother (let’s go to the mall, Robin Sparkles) and now she’s showing herself to be an incredibly versatile actor. Holm is brilliant (although I have trouble not seeing him in an office getting high) as well, as is Gail Bean. Her Jasmine is wonderfully strong, self-assured, and determined.
Unexpected is not just a beautiful, poignant story, but it’s also important. A women telling a woman’s story from a woman’s perspective shouldn’t be a radical thing but, ugh, it is. So let’s keep this going, shall we?
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.