It wasn’t until it came time to figure out the labor scene that Kris Swanberg realized her movie about pregnancy was unusual. After all, there are lots of movies out there about people having babies. But, when she sat down with her director of photography to look at some examples of how delivery had been handled in those forerunners, she noticed something strange: almost every on-screen birth that she watched was portrayed from the point of view of a man in the room.
“I didn’t set out and say, ‘I’m going to make a movie from the female perspective, dammit!’” Swanberg says. “But because I’m a woman and I wrote it and a lot of it was based on my own personal experience, it just sort of happened that way. Not until after the fact did I realize that it’s actually very rare.”
The film, Unexpected (in theaters, on demand and on iTunes July 24), directed by Swanberg and co-written with Megan Mercier, is the story of a high-school teacher (played by How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders) facing a surprise pregnancy at the same time as one of her most promising students (impressive newcomer Gail Bean). As they both face variations on the same question—how a baby will affect their plans for the future, whether it’s a dream job or a college education—they form a friendship; unusually, it’s that relationship, rather than their romantic ones, that’s at the movie’s center. Smulders’ character’s mother is played by Elizabeth McGovern, who starred in She’s Having a Baby, which perhaps the ultimate example of a movie about pregnancy and birth seen from a man’s perspective.
The personal experience on which Unexpected is based is a combination of Swanberg’s time spent as a teacher in Chicago’s west side and her experiences juggling work and motherhood. Swanberg’s husband is the filmmaker Joe Swanberg, so they’ve been able to alternate work and primary-parenting when it comes to their son, but the question took on an extra layer of meaning around Unexpected: their second child is due right around the same time that the movie is.
“Everyone asks, without ill intentions, what I’m going to do [about working]. Everyone asks every pregnant woman that,” she tells TIME. “Everyone expects a man to go back to work.”
That conundrum had an extra layer of meaning for Smulders too, who was already pregnant when she was offered the part. (Her baby was born in January, and she jokes that the best part of the coincidence was that the Unexpected production was able to save money on belly prosthetics.) It’s important to have movies about motherhood that focus on the identity-crisis aspect of being pregnant, she notes, because those pop-culture depictions determine many people’s ideas of what that life change will be like in reality.
“It was so unknown to me [before having children]. You have a general idea of what it’s going to be and that is formed by film or commercials or people you know,” she says. “I think if I were really fully informed by the things I watched on TV I would think that kids were really quippy and had amazing comedic timing and learned life lessons so fast and so easily, just with a conversation at the end of the bed.”
So balancing out Full House and Party of 5—a major source of information about families for a younger Cobie Smulders—is a big deal. And there’s already evidence that the message is getting through.
“Showing the film, I’ve gotten a lot of people come up and say, ‘This is exactly what I went through,’” Swanberg says. “And men coming up and saying, ‘Now I really understand.’”
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