Greta Gerwig, speaking at Sundance earlier this year, made the case for female filmmakers perfectly and succinctly: “We need women writers. Men don’t know what we’re doing when they aren’t there.”
Unexpected, written by Kris Swanberg (who also directed) and Megan Mercier, both certified females, points up the simple wisdom of Gerwig’s statement. This movie, about the parallel pregnancies of a white, comfortably middle-class high school science teacher, Samantha (Cobie Smulders), and her relatively poor, black student, Jasmine (Gail Bean), is almost entirely about what women do when men aren’t around. It is almost impossible to imagine this movie having been written by a man.
We meet Samantha in the midst of discovering she is pregnant. Unmarried (though living with her boyfriend) and about to lose her job, Samantha treats the news as a minor catastrophe. But her boyfriend proposes, and things start to smooth out pretty quickly, leaving Samantha to fixate on her fears that motherhood will swallow her identity. Samantha displaces this fear onto Jasmine, a promising senior whose forthcoming baby Samantha refuses to allow to keep Jasmine from attending college downstate. The two forge an easy friendship as they navigate the weirdness of their unexpected pregnancies. Samantha, because of her age and class, focuses on juggling baby and career, while Jasmine tries to figure out how she can face life as a college freshman with a newborn.
While Swanberg’s aesthetic is very much lo-fi slice-of-life realism, her staging and screenplay hit almost all the beats one expects from a pregnancy story — the pregnancy test, the courthouse wedding, the mildly chuckle-worthy pre-natal yoga, the overwhelming reality of the ultrasound. It just hits them softer. There is a fine line between slice-of-life realism and simple blandness, and unfortunately Swanberg steers toward the latter far too often.
Swanberg seems almost afraid of the deep divides — race, class, and gender — that undergird her film, allowing them to peek only momentarily through the film’s air of mellowness. Some cultural misunderstandings naturally occur, but they are tepid and unexplored. Unexpected touches, ever so gently and at times even imperceptibly, on some interesting issues, including, surprisingly, Mayor One Percent’s closure of nearly 50 Chicago public schools. But even though Samantha attends a protest in one scene and expresses some mild disdain for charter schools, Swanberg gives only the vaguest sense of her political commitments.
The film’s basic problem is that Swanberg defines her characters circumstantially. Samantha is white, middle class, and skeptical about motherhood; Jasmine is black, poor, and a good student; both are unexpectedly pregnant. These identifiers tell you almost everything you will find out about these characters in Unexpected. What are their hobbies? Their taste in music? Do they like to travel? What do they do on their summer breaks? Samantha and Jasmine are so vaguely defined that I can’t answer any of these questions, and, more to the point, I’m not sure Swanberg can either. She has focused the narrative so narrowly on the anxieties of motherhood that she has neglected to attach them to actual human beings.
And so the central dilemma for both Samantha and Jasmine remains depressingly mundane. Will Samantha have to sacrifice her chance at her dream job to stay home with the baby? Can Jasmine manage to take care of her baby while also attending college? Because we know so little of these characters on a deeper level, the stakes here are ill-defined. What does Jasmine even want out of college? Does she know? Does Swanberg?
In Theaters & On Demand July 24.