MFF 2015: 'Unexpected'

City Paper

Don’t be put off by the “The Blind Side”-like setup of this movie about a white woman mentoring a young African-American woman: Director and co-writer Kris Swanberg’s slice-of-life drama confidently avoids feel-good clichés by showing just how different the lives of its two women are. “Unexpected” follows Sam (Cobie Smulders), a 30-year-old science teacher at a Chicago high school that is being closed at the end of the academic year. Though she fell into the classroom via Teach for America after earning a master’s degree, it’s what she loves. And when she comes across an opening for an education coordinator at the Field Museum of Natural History, she knows it’s her dream job. When she realizes she’s pregnant, however, she worries it’s not the future she’s chosen for herself, even though her nice-guy boyfriend John (Anders Holm) mans up and proposes, saying maybe it wasn’t the plan while assuring her that they can do this. Sam finds an unconventional partner in pregnancy’s roller coaster in Jasmine (Gail Bean), a smart senior in her class. Jasmine is pregnant, too, and Sam wants to encourage her not to let it keep her from pursuing college. Soon the pair are going to prenatal yoga together and staying after school to work on college applications.

Kudos to Swanberg for realizing that “Unexpected” gains power the more tightly focused it becomes. The Chicago school closings, Sam’s relationship with the boyfriend/husband and her mother (Elizabeth McGovern, whose brief screen time absolutely nails the taut mother-daughter dynamic here), the what-to-expect-when-you’re-expecting clichés—all gets pushed to the background as Sam and Jasmine get to know each other beyond the teacher-student relationship. And instead of the familiar notion that has black and white characters overcoming their differences to show how we can all get along, the more Sam and Jasmine see of each other’s lives only amplifies the chasm between them. In the process, “Unexpected” becomes less a trite pop song about overcoming adversity and more a pair of emotive solos from Smulders and Bean in the same blues song that is 21st-century Chicago, where—like in many American urban areas—austerity has shipwrecked the city, and there’s barely any seats on neoliberalism’s lifeboat.

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