Written by Dylan Brandsema
Unexpected is just that – unexpected, and not without reason. It premiered at Sundance back in January of this year and over the summer found its way onto VOD and other streaming services as well as an extremely limited theatrical release. The only real publicity it received was that its star, Cobie Smulders, was in fact pregnant with her second child during the time of filming. Online trailers didn’t do much to help the film’s release, and it kind of came out nowhere. It’s a shame, too, that it wasn’t a bigger, because Unexpected is truly a terrific film.
The third directorial effort from director Kris Swanberg, Unexpected is a movie that goes for story over plot – a sequence of events happening in a certain order as opposed to a conflict and resolution. Swanberg makes this very clear from the film’s first frames. The opening scenes are intercut between black credit title cards. Swanberg makes great use of editing to show right from the beginning the sort of narrative style the film will have. Often when movies use this sort of story over plot style of storytelling, it can become tedious and stodgy, as if we’re always waiting for something exciting to happen. A different Cobie Smulders film from earlier this year, Results was guilty of this sevenfold, which resulted in a terrible movie. Thankfully, Unexpected is not. The film is only 90 minutes, but not a single second is ever boring, and it always keeps us wondering. There’s not a moment in the film where the viewer will be able to predict what the next scene will be, or even what will happen at the next moment within a scene. This is again a great use of editing, and it prevents Swanberg’s storytelling style from being too flashy. She knows when to end a scene – none of the scenes ever go on or too long or feel as if they got cut off. Everything plays out a like a puzzle where all the pieces are the same size and shape. Yet, at the same time, nothing ever feels forced or contrived. Swanberg directs with an extremely sharp mind for narrative, pacing, and detail, and if this film were a cup of coffee, Swanberg would be the person who gives you just the right amount sugar to put in to make it taste just right.
Almost all of the film consists of two or more people having conversations (films like these often dubbed “A talking head movie”). Because of this, the writing has to be strong. And it most definitely is. Swanberg and co-writer Megan Mercier have crafted one of the most meticulous screenplays of the year, and unquestionably one of the best. At no point is it hard to believe that any of the conversations between the characters wouldn’t really happen. Swanberg works the film’s sense of realism and how grounded it is in reality into progressing the story and moving things along at the right pace brilliantly. It’s both realistic and exactly what is needed to tell the story in the fashion that it is.
With great writing, of course, you must have great performance to go with it, and luckily, Unexpected is full of them, the main subjects being Smulders as the protagonist Samantha Abbot, and newcomer Gail Bean (making her feature debut) as her also-pregnant student, Jasmine. Smulders and Bean have great, very concentrated chemistry as unlikely friends, and their shared time together on screen is a large part of what makes the film truly worthwhile.
As Sam, Smulders gives what is unthinkably the best performances of her career thus far. Any shred of Robin Scherbatsky or Maria Hill that precedes your viewing of the film will be long gone less almost immediately, and Smulders deserves any and all praise that she receives. In one of the film’s best scenes, her and her husband go for their first ultrasound, and the look on her face when she first sees what’s growing inside of her is hundred and one different feelings contained into one sole expression. The exchange that follows between her, her husband, and the doctor is both sad and, in a weird, subtle way awkwardly funny, and in this scene alone Smulders displays some of her best abilities. She’s come a long way since her early television days, and the caliber of this film, as well the performance she gives within it, is what she’s been working towards her whole career. She squeezes every once there is out of there is, and what we see on the screen pays off in the possible way.
Workaholics star and creator Anders Holm also does a fair job and Sam’s husband John. Yet, of the supporting cast, the one that really stands out is Elizabeth McGovern as Samantha’s mother, in one of the year’s best casting choices. McGovern has always been a criminally underrated actress (watch Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon A Time In America for further proof), and here, Swanberg puts her to great use. Her performance is very cautious – very exact – she only has three scenes which probably adds up to less than 10 minutes. Her presence and the effect it has Sam’s course of actions, is felt throughout. It also doesn’t hurt that her and Smulders have extremely similar facials features, which only pushes further the believability of their relationships.
That’s the thing that Unexpected is really about. As much as it has to say about pregnancy, motherhood, marriage, and other such subjects, it is, at its core, about relationships. And bonding within relationships. And how important bonding can be. Thematically, the film is about thick as motor oil, and it’s more than likely that this will have added value upon repeated viewings.
It’s commonplace for these types of indie, low-budget dramas to get swept under the rug and, in time, become a complete obscurity to general audiences. Despite everything it has going for itself, this will probably happen to Unexpected and it’s a damn shame. This is realistic, grounded, linear storytelling the way it should be. In Unexpected, Kris Swanberg has concocted a smart, touching, beautiful, impeccably crafted film – an almost perfect one, in fact. If you can find the film anywhere, whether it be on VOD or any other home media format, it is undoubtedly worth your time. See it.