In Unexpected, Cobie Smulders plays Samantha Abbott, an inner-city high-school teacher who finds out she’s pregnant at the worst possible time: Her school is about to shut down, she’s about to become unemployed, and the dream job she wants to apply for will probably start right around her due date. Samantha’s challenges, however, pale next to that of one of her smarter students, Jasmine (Gail Bean), who also turns out to be pregnant. Jasmine, whose family is on welfare, would be starting college right around her due date — the promise of an education and a better life tempered, and possibly ruined, by the demands and costs of teen single-motherhood.
That’s an intriguing setup, but the film can’t quite deliver on it. Samantha decides to help Jasmine get into college, in part because she herself has become aware of how much our notions of career and ambition are rigged against pregnancy and motherhood: A depressing job interview for Samantha is soon followed by a contentious college interview for Jasmine. But intercutting and interweaving these two women’s stories suggests an overall arc, or journey, and Unexpected doesn’t really get there. It stays fixed on individual moments, like words in search of a sentence. And for all the film’s ironies and equivalencies, it remains far more attuned to Samantha’s story. This is not a two-hander about two young, very different women; it’s a character study of Samantha, with Jasmine there for context, contrast, and occasional tension. That’s troubling on several levels, of course, but it’s also just plain ineffective storytelling. The film invests us in this girl’s dilemma and then under-serves its own dramatic conceit. It’s not a bad movie, just an incomplete one.
That’s the bad news. The good news? Holy crap is Cobie Smulders fantastic here. She has mastered the timing of emotional release: Her face, which has a kind of natural intelligence, takes on a slightly puzzled quality when she tries to keep her feelings bottled up. At one point, as Samantha has her 20-week ultrasound and learns the sex of her baby, she hesitates for a bit after being told she’s having a girl. In those few empty seconds — a moment when, I confess, I teared up — you wonder what’s going on inside her head. And then she breaks down crying, finally joining the viewer in the cumulative power of the moment. Credit director Swanberg for knowing to focus on the actress and keep us grounded in the character’s experience of every scene. Even during casual dialogue exchanges, the camera stays on Samantha, never letting us forget the emotional and corporeal fact of what’s happening to her. It’s a smart choice: Smulders’s performance makes Unexpected more than worthwhile.