American cinema is rich in films portraying pregnancy as an agent of change that affords screw-ups the chance to settle down and get with that all-important consumerist nuclear program. The physical challenges of pregnancy are often reduced to a few cute montages depicting morning sickness, while the social reverberations, particularly the different significances babies pose for various races and classes, are usually outright ignored. These films are often about affluent white people who can afford to have a child, seeing it as a fashion accessory to be obtained at the right moment in their lives—a viewpoint the narratives don’t question.
Which is to say that Unexpected, a story of two pregnant women, Samantha (Cobie Smulders), a white, thirtysomething, inner-city high school teacher, and Jasmine (Gail Bean), a black student from a poor family, promises to mine uncomfortable material via contrast, most obviously in terms of the opportunities that are available to one prospective mother and perhaps not as much the other. Not to mention the tension of expecting as a working woman regardless of race or class, living in an unresolved society that now expects a mother to work and stay at home more or less simultaneously, stuck as we are in a “progressiveness” that resembles another shade of conformity.
These subtexts float around in Unexpected, unprocessed and barely dramatized. Director Kris Swanberg often appears to be feeling her way around any given scene, unsure as to which slant she wants it to take. There’s almost too much premise here for one film, as the mixed-race odd-couple element competes for our attention with the exploration of normative gender roles in a child’s birth—though, occasionally, there are astute suggestions of how these two subjects might intermingle. Samantha resents having to give up her job to have a child (Smulders and Swanberg are unsentimental about this point), not only because she’s a woman wrestling with an issue that doesn’t (directly) encumber men, but because she’s used to having things when she wants them. Samantha’s liberal generosity is dependent on her own sense of unquestioned status, and the film’s edgiest scenes show us that it wouldn’t even occur to Jasmine to expect so much.
More distinctively, there’s a flirtation with a suggestion that Samantha shouldn’t work at all—that it’s egotistical and callous for her to believe she should, which is almost daring in the context of an American society that pushes people to do whatever they want, common sense be damned, but that now mostly expects women to work. Partial equalization of gender roles means that women have inherited one of the male’s great social traps: the belief that you are your work, and that a pursuit undefined by the traditional strictures of conventional pay and prescribed production times isn’t good enough. When Samantha goes to a job interview visibly pregnant and begins speaking of start dates with her visibly uncomfortable male interviewer, the latter isn’t demonized as an oppressor, because the difficulty of hiring someone physically unfit for a job, politically correct or not, is refreshingly acknowledged. Swanberg also occasionally displays a ruthless satiric ear for how liberal men, who nevertheless want what they want, attempt to coax their wives into abiding them not with lectures, but with displays of “understanding.”
Unexpected is rich in ambitiously uncomfortable signifiers, then, but it suggests that Swanberg has taken notes on what a film concerned with pregnancy should include without actually making it. Each scene is resonant but undramatic, as there’s little element of spontaneity. Samantha and Jasmine, despite being played by excellent, charismatic actors, aren’t particularly interesting; they’re less characters than testaments to Facets of Womanhood. There’s a studied sense of mildness here that doesn’t quite wash with the considerable anger that resides, untapped, underneath the film’s surface. Unexpected isn’t a failure of intelligence or empathy, but of nerve.