As an admirer of her debut feature It Was Great, But I Was Ready To Come Home, and a fan of the group of filmmakers with which she is associated, I was excited for Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected, her first film on a decent budget. Thankfully Swanberg did has not disappointed, delivering a wonderful incarnation of a story that could easily stray into problematic, paternalistic territory given its content. Unexpected follows Samantha (Cobie Smulders), a white middle-class science teacher on the brink of losing her job as the public high school at which she teaches is about to close, and Jasmine (Gail Bean), a senior with fantastic grades at this otherwise mostly underperforming inner-city Chicago school, as both fall unexpectedly pregnant and try to work out what to do with their lives in the fallout. For Samantha, this means a hasty unplanned marriage to her partner John (Anders Holm of Workaholics), whereas for Jasmine, this throws her plans of a college education into disarray. Upon discovering Jasmine’s pregnancy, Samantha takes on a bit of a paternalistic role in her life, living precariously through her and encouraging her to attend college in spite of her impending motherhood.
Where a lesser film would fall down is in a failure to grant Jasmine personal autonomy, or a failure to call out Samantha on her behavior, which is at least slightly affected by their racial differences. Instead, Swanberg goes another route, granting Jasmine a final point of total-autonomy and fostering a beautiful mutually-beneficial friendship form between the two who attend pre-natal yoga classes, share fast food outings, and generally cope with their unexpected pregnancies through each other. The level of skill and control on display here is impressive, given Swanberg’s mumblecore roots, and Smulders and Bean deliver fantastic performances as the film’s two leads.
Barring one scene towards the end of the film that comes across as a little heavy handed and feels like it is playing into white-guilt cliches rather than a reflection of a reality of these character’s situations, the relationship feels extremely organic – probably the result of the way in which this crop of film-makers blurs the line between fact and fiction. Kris Swanberg is, herself, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher; a few years ago she had a child with husband Joe Swanberg, the fallout of which was explored in one of the sub-plots of his film Happy Christmas.1 In this sense, Kris Swanberg is building upon the Mumblecore tradition of incorporating aspects of her personal life into her output. Unexpected offers a great counter-point to Happy Christmas, that explored the first years of childhood from the perspective of Joe, looking out the anxieties of stay-at-home mothering and child-rearing instead from the perspective of Kris. There’s a really interesting dialogue between the two films, which was unique in that you don’t often see two films that communicate with each other so closely about such personal events. Interesting, too, was the fact that Smulders was pregnant during this shoot (although this was apparently unintentional) which leads to some fantastic, unique shots of Smulder’s pregnant belly and adds an air of realism to everything going on in the film.
On an aesthetic level, Unexpected is extremely accomplished, never losing the raw, hand-held feel of her earlier work but formalizing these elements into something that could play well in wide, domestic theatrical release. The performances, too, are great – Bean is a standout as Jasmine, while Smulders delivers a performance that at least matches, if not exceeds that in her other festival appearance this year, Bujalski’s Results. The film feels far more conventional and accessible than her previous, more purist mumblecore films and it’s very exciting to see the crop of filmmakers that sprung up from these movements transferring over to more approachable, mainstream fodder – they’re bringing with them an air of personality and realism to a number of genres and film-types that have often fallen prey to construction based solely on cliche. There’s no big, theatrical, over-the-top ‘oh-my-god-the-baby-is-coming’ moment like we have seen in films like Knocked Up, nor is there a reliance on character archetypes (loveable stoner, pretty-girl-who-hooked-up-with-the-stoner, stoner’s dumb mates, unapproving relatives) to propel the story along. Although you could track these film’s almost side-by-side in some of their movements, there’s a clear difference between them, one that roots Unexpected more in the realm of reality, and one that clearly tosses Knocked Up into the world of fiction. All in all, Unexpected is a stellar effort from Kris Swanberg, an interesting, well-accomplished and self-assured film that promises great things to come. She has asserted herself as an interesting voice in the modern independent film canon and surely has a lot more great work ahead of her.