Cobie Smulders had two films play back to back at CCFF this year, and she's great in both of them.
Maybe that's not totally accurate. It doesn't try to avoid being "commercial." I think Swanberg welcomes the movie being commercial. She tries to avoid her movie being clichéd. That's fair to say.
Smulders plays Samantha Abbott, a science teacher in a Chicago public high school that's weeks away from closing. She and her live-in boyfriend John (Anders Holm) get an unexpected (get it?) surprise in the form of a pregnancy, which throws all of Sam's plans into question. At the same time, she grows closer with a bright student named Jasmine (newcomer Gail Bean) who has also gotten pregnant. As the pair navigate their pregnancies together, Sam tries to help Jasmine plan for the future...and hopefully figure out her own in the process.
I also like the way Swanberg shoots Chicago. She's not overly precious about it, capturing the city accurately by not trying too hard to capture it accurately. Because of where Sam teaches and Jasmine comes from, there are a number of scenes that take place in what would best be described as the "inner city" -- some of Chicago's rougher neighborhoods -- but Swanberg doesn't approach it as anything scary or dangerous. She shows families and communities living a normal, happy life despite some difficult circumstances. One of Unexpected's best scenes is of a baby shower crowded with extended family and friends, celebrating success with food and love. The scene doesn't exist to make any kind of statement about black communities in Chicago, though; it's about paying off everything that has come before. This is why we build families. This is why our hardships are worthwhile. This is how we get through life: together.
Because Swanberg and co-writer Megan Mercier are always striving for emotional authenticity in their screenplay, it can be especially jarring when characters begin behaving a way that feels convenient for the demands of the plot. It doesn't happen too often, but when it does we are quickly reminded that we are watching a movie and a commercial one at that. The performers do their best to sell those moments and succeed to the degree that the material still works even when it's a bit contrived. Mentioning the specifics would require spoilers; suffice it to say these instances are rare. The film eschews the low-fi, cinema vérité one might expect from a work that wants to be as honest and grounded as this one, instead opting for a polished (though not overly so) and well put-together movie with a real contemporary indie movie aesthetic. Yet while the formal choices are clearly cinematic, the emotions never feel faked. The thin gloss of artificiality -- its movieness -- never masks the film's big, beating heart.