A 30-year-old teacher in Chicago’s inner city learns she’s pregnant around the same time one of her students finds out SHE’S pregnant — and they forge an unusual and sometimes tumultuous bond as they set out on this life-altering and amazing and wonderful and sometimes terrifying journey together.
It sounds like the stuff of a treacly made-for-TV movie, but thanks to a couple of pure and true performances and some fine directing, “Unexpected” avoids the cliché potholes (for the most part) and, um, delivers.
Director and co-writer Kris Swanberg filmed “Unexpected” in and around Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood, and the result is a movie about a high school teacher and a high school student that feels authentic.
Cobie Smulders continues her run of fine work in movies both huge (“The Avengers”) and bite-sized ("The Results") as Samantha, a popular science teacher who has earned the respect of her students and is clearly passionate about her job. Samantha isn’t one of those cringe-inducing Beautiful White Female Teachers Rescuing the Poor Black Student characters; rather she reminds me of some of the teachers I know who have devoted their lives to the education of inner-city youth.
With the prospect of the school shutting down (sound familiar?) and staffers being told they should seek employment elsewhere, Samantha gets excited about going for a job at the Field Museum — but when she learns she’s pregnant, her career considerations take a back seat because, after all, it’s not like her blandly supportive boyfriend (Anders Holm) is going to quit HIS job to stay at home with the baby, right?
Around this same time, one of Samantha’s favorite students, the bright and promising Jasmine (Gail Bean), finds out she’s with child as well, and when Jasmine makes the decision to keep the baby while refusing to give up her dream of attending a good college, Samantha takes Jasmine under her wing — sometimes it’s vice versa — as they navigate the exhilarating and nauseating and exciting and exhausting territory of carrying a child.
The men in “Unexpected” are OK guys who try to do the right thing (one is more present than the other) and often say or do stupid things. When they’re onscreen, we wish they’d wander away so we could get back to the sibling dynamic between Samantha and Jasmine. Yes, it’s a little weird for them to be hanging out — but why not? They need each other, even if they’re from different worlds, from their upbringing to their race to the age difference. (When Samantha tells Jasmine most of her friends haven’t had children yet, a stunned Jasmine says, “Why not? You’re OLD.” To which Samantha responds: “I’m THIRTY.” Jasmine sits back, point taken.)
Elizabeth McGovern (who played a young Chicago area mother-to-be in John Hughes’ “She’s Having a Baby” in 1988) is wonderful as Samantha’s mother, who has that motherly way of striking just the right (or should we say wrong) nerve while genuinely caring for her daughter’s well-being. Smulders and McGovern are terrific together.
Mostly, though, “Unexpected” is about the friendship between Samantha and Jasmine, which takes some predictable turns but also winds up in a few unexpected places. Smulders gives one of the most natural performances of her career, and Bean’s subtle, strong work announces her as a young actress to watch.