Pregnancy comedies are almost as common as actual pregnancies. It’s a universal experience that’s filled with stress, absurdity, hormones, and a built-in tearful ending. What’s pleasantly unexpected about ‘Unexpected’ is how low-key and real the final product feels. It’s a wisp of a movie, yet not in an insubstantial way. It captures the fleeting little moments that add up to major life experiences.
Colbie Smulders stars as Samantha, an inner city high school teacher who suddenly discovers that she’s pregnant, forcing her to possibly give up a job opportunity that she had her eye on and get into a minor emotional turmoil. Her long-term boyfriend (Anders Holm) is surprised but overjoyed. They quickly get married, much to the disappointed shock of her overbearing mother (Elizabeth McGovern), yet all seems well. Then Samantha learns that her most promising student (Gail Bean) is also pregnant. The teen is concerned and considers dropping out of college, which Samantha refuses to accept. Together, the grown woman and teen help each other deal with their unexpected pregnancies while life goes all topsy-turvy around them.
Now, that might all sound a bit corny and melodramatic, but the finest achievement of mumblecore veteran Kris Swanberg and her writing partner Megan Mercier is that the film never falls into those traps. Swanberg’s background in improvised naturalism suits her jump up to the indie mainstream well. The movie doesn’t score on big dramatic arcs and beats, but on little moments and how she’s able to twist them into oddly funny or movingly subtle ways. Scenes like Bean’s boyfriend vomiting over her pregnancy hunger concoction of Cheeto crumbs and pickle juice, or Smulders sudden slightly silly eruption of tears when she learns she’s having a girl at an ultrasound, find warm laughs rooted more in recognizably odd behavior than any sort of conventional joke writing. Likewise the sad moments of mutual connection between the two women or the scenes when crushing realities break the kind little bubbles the characters live in never feel like cloying audience manipulation, but naturally moving glimpses into the downbeats of their lives.
Obviously, this sort of film lives entirely off the backs of the actors, and Swanberg found a perfect central duo to bring the story to life. The Marvel movie and sitcom star baggage that Smulders should theoretically bring to the project is completely absent. Her mixture of strength and unexpected breakdowns is so relatable and her performance choices so small that she fits into Swanberg’s world perfectly, never once reminding the audiences of her previous mainstream success.
The younger Gail Bean is possibly even stronger. She has less screen time to carry her role, and Swanberg wisely avoids any scenes that feel like needless exposition or backstory. Bean needs to carry everything on her face, and she does so with a remarkable combination of subtlety and weight. The other characters don’t get nearly as much to work with, but all at least feel like their characters have full lives outside their fleeting appearances.
Since Swanberg’s goals are rooted entirely in behavior and observation, her cinematic style is limited to handheld long takes that allow the actors to play out scenes in full, and a bouncy score used primarily to link scenes rather than underline emotions. ‘Unexpected’ carries a deliberate sense of minimalism that might make it difficult for some viewers to appreciate the film’s strengths. There are no major bursts of drama or clear dramatic peaks to coddle viewers along and tell them how to feel. The movie gives the audience enough credit to be able to pay attention and appreciate emotional warmth and finely observed reality above all else. ‘Unexpected’ is a delightful little experience for those inclined to take it, but certainly not a film for everybody (in the best possible sense).