Review: ‘Unexpected’ is slight, but Cobie Smulders and Gail Bean shine

The “How I Met Your Mother” Redemption Tour is in full effect at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Jason Segel has received the best reviews of his career for his gimmick-free performance as David Foster Wallace in “The End of The Tour.”

Cobie Smulders is proving her mettle as a leading lady in “Unexpected.”

And Josh Radnor is nowhere to be seen with a follow-up to “Liberal Arts.”

[Sorry. Easy punchline. I actually thought “Happythankyoumoreplease” was a perfectly respectable sign of Radnor's potential as a writer-director.]

Meanwhile, Neil Patrick Harris has been too busy winning Tonys and preparing to host the Oscars to be in anything Sundance-y this year, while Alyson Hannigan remains chronically underused.

Smulders also stars in “Results,” which premieres at Sundance on Tuesday, but at least her Festival got off to a solid start with “Unexpected.”

Directed by Kris Swanberg, who co-wrote with Megan Mercier, “Unexpected” is a very slight movie, almost absurdly short on incident even with a running time of under 90 minutes, but it's also sweet and funny, giving a female-centric take on pregnancy through two very different perspectives.

Oh and give “Unexpected” bonus points for bringing Elizabeth McGovern back to the genre of Chicago-set dramedies about women having babies.

[More after the break…]

Samantha Abbott (Cobie Smulders) is a science teacher at an inner city Chicago public school that's about to shut down. Facing professional uncertainty, Samantha's life gets even more complicated when she discovers she's pregnant, forcing her to skip a few relationship steps with a boyfriend so amiably bland he's just named John (Anders Holm). As Samantha ponders her options, she strikes up a friendship with a bright senior named Jasmine (Gail Bean), who also happens to be pregnant. 

Put in the simplest way possible, “Unexpected” is about options, paralleling the different options a 30-year-old pregnant white woman with an uncertain future has when compared to the options available to a 17-year-old pregnant African-American girl with an uncertain future.

Swanberg mostly avoids coming out and having characters discuss the race and class differences that are the only things fueling conflict in the story. Instead, she just quietly contrasts scenes like Samantha's first ultrasound and the similar first appointment for Jasmine, or Samantha's interview for a new job at the Field Museum versus Jasmine's meeting with an admissions officer at University of Illinois, or the responses from their respective baby-daddies and their respective maternal figures. Samantha is in a position that could be played as paternalistic, trying to sort out Jasmine's life for her, but “Unexpected” chides Samantha for her displacement. At no point does Jasmine tell Samantha to check her privilege, but the movie sure doesn't hide from the existence of that privilege. 

There's something very pure about how much this story belongs to its two female leads. Holm gets a little mileage from his comic timing, but John is a pretty basic boyfriend who does the right thing most of the time, says stupid things periodically, but is good enough on average that he isn't required to be a part of things. McGovern, who makes fine genetic sense as Smulders' mom, has much more tangible input to give (and reminds you that “She's Having a Baby,” while not the most consistent of movies, has a similar blend of comedy and emotion in its treatment of pregnancy).

The only narrative feature I've seen so far at Sundance 2015 that wasn't a two-hander at heart was “Ten Thousand Saints” and I've been so bogged down in my suspicion that the movie's variations of tone must've played better in the book that I haven't brought myself to write a review.

“Unexpected,” though Smulders is front-and-center in promotion, is definitely a two-hander.

Smulders also isn't the surprise. She's just good, offering a reminder that even when the “How I Met Your Mother” writers gave Robin problematic or straight-up-ineffective dramatic material to play, the fault in execution never was performance-based. Smulders has good comic timing, is a spectacular funny-crier and really shines in quiet moments, like Samantha discovering a solution to delay the wearing of maternity pants. I'm sure Smulders' real-life pregnancy during production adds grounding, but I'm even more sure it was responsible for a jump in time that nobody needs to mention.

The thematic balance that I mentioned above absolutely requires that as good as Smulders is, she has to be paired with an actress who's her equal. And Gail Bean is that and more. I'd never seen Bean in anything before and I hadn't even read the “Unexpected” synopsis in the Sundance guide, but from Bean's first appearance, when she's first among equals with the fine young supporting cast, I recognized who was holding the camera and delivering dialogue with authority. Whether doing pre-natal yoga or bantering on a college road trip, Smulders and Bean are funny together, but there's a confidence that Bean brings that forces us to see the ways Jasmine is more prepared for motherhood than Samantha, with the script rarely needing to underline the point.

I haven't seen Kris Swanberg's first two films as a writer-director and I, in fact, probably know her better as an actress in several of husband Joe's films. [Joe Swanberg's “Digging For Fire” premieres at Sundance on Monday night.] Swanberg's work here has a good sense of tonal volume. There are broad comedic moments, but Swanberg (and her stars) add enough drama to them so that they don't feel frivolous, while any moment that feels too heavy is cut with a little comedy before it goes into Afterschool Special territory. I wouldn't say that “Unexpected” is tremendously funny or tremendously dramatic. It's just lifelike.

And maybe that's why “Unexpected” is holding up nicely in my mind a few hours later. It's played in a minor key throughout, but with Smulders and Bean leading the way, it's also natural and appealing.

Other Sundance 2015 Reviews:
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”
“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”
“Slow West”
“The Amina Profile”
“The Hunting Ground”
“The End of the Tour”
“A Walk in the Woods”
“Finders Keepers”
“How To Change The World”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”