Editor's note: with this review of Spontaneous, we're happy to welcome Brennan Klein to the team as "permanent guest" reviewer. At Brennan's request, I'll be marking out all of his reviews so you don't accidentally think they're by me, but we look forward to having him help cover some of the many VOD releases coming out these days that I haven't been able to catch yet. -TB
2020, for all its failures, has at least given me a new barometer by which to judge the verisimilitude of a narrative. Any movie made pre-COVID (which at this point is, well, basically all of them) that has alarming parallels to our current world proves that it got something right about the nature of human interaction with death and devastation both emotionally and politically. These moments have cropped up everywhere in narratives I’ve consumed since the beginning of March: Government officials in Godzilla (1954) wanting to cover up the initial attack to avoid provoking the public into a panic even though the scope of the inevitable future destruction is entirely clear to them. Customers sitting in a diner in The Birds aimlessly speculating about the origin of the attacks, some terrified, some not even believing they happened without having seen them with their own eyes. A pre-apocalyptic America in the novel Bird Box learning about horrible happenings across the globe that haven’t reached their shores yet, rolling their eyes at their neighbors taking precautions, saying they’re overreacting.
Spontaneous is one of those stories. The film is adapted by writer-director Brian Duffield from Aaron Starmer’s 2015 novel of the same name, and it follows the senior class of a high school in Covington, New Jersey. One day, about seven months before graduation, a student explodes. Not in a bombing. They didn’t eat Pop Rocks and Diet Coke. They just… pop. Spontaneous combustion. Seventeen-year-old Mara (Katherine Langford) is surprised when afterward her classmate Dylan (Charlie Plummer) confesses that he has a crush on her. But he’s been inspired by the incident to embrace life to its fullest and not put off anything for later, because there might not be a later. For many of the seniors in Covington, there won’t be. The rash of spontaneous combustions continues, baffling medical authorities, the FBI, and obviously the teens and their families. Dylan and Mara’s romance blooms in the geysers of blood, both of them fully aware that every move they make might be their last.
This is a hard enough film to capture in a single paragraph just on the plot level, but to fully lay out the tone of Spontaneous would take more words than triple my limit. Duffield's screenplay slides deftly between comedy, horror, drama, and character study. These tones are all anchored around the increasingly nihilistic sense that everything that happens to us happens for no particular reason. While this certainly gets heavy, it never weighs down the lighter side of the screenplay. It has as much fun mocking its own ridiculous premise as it does using that premise as a cudgel to smash you senseless. The fact that this film isn't utterly depressing is a feat that defies physics, like watching an elephant do a handstand on a Dixie cup.
I think the easiest comparison to these darkly comic characters is the work of Kevin Williamson. His teens were smart, cynical, detached, pop culture savvy, and always had their hand on the hilt of a quip, ready to draw at any moment. However, Spontaneous asks what the snarky disaffected teens of the 90's might have been like if they were born in generation Z. Mara, Dylan, and their compatriots have all of the darkness of the Scream era, but none of the apathy. Especially in the case of Mara, they throw themselves into life with a zesty earnestness that would make Billy Loomis stick his finger down his throat. They care about the things they love deeply, and that is why it's so much harder for them to cope with the horrible things that are happening around them. They're just trying to build a world that fits the things they love around all the other bullshit life throws at them.
The cast is incredibly game at finding the nuanced space between sarcasm and love, with Katherine Langford delivering career-best work (so far) in a character arc that should have chewed any young actress up like a woodchipper. Plummer is also deft at finding the cool in a kid who knows exactly how uncool he is and doesn't care. They have the thinnest tightrope to walk but they do with ease, bolstered by the more openly comic side characters, particularly Yvonne Orji's dryly humorous FBI investigator with a heart of gold.
There's also a zippy energy to the stylization of the film, especially the first and second acts, which are fueled by narration via fourth wall breaking that isn't exactly fresh and new at this point in cinema, but delivered with zeal. The way the poppy aesthetic is undercut by the frequently harrowing imagery of teenagers exploding is certainly a nudge in the direction of keeping it fresh. Come to think of it, that's probably the biggest strength of Spontaneous. It shows you something you've probably seen a dozen times before, blows it up, and reassembles the pieces into a larger meaning that is frequently heart-wrenching.
Does Spontaneous still fall into some of the pitfalls of the modern YA adaptation? Of course it does. Mara's grotesquely upper middle class bedroom gives Love, Simon a run for his money in the size department, looking more fit to house the sarcophagus of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh than a teenage girl. And as much as the casting department does a solid job bringing queer people and people of color into the fold, the two leads are still of course white, cis, and straight.
But at the end of the day, while Spontaneous was hard to watch at times, it was still incredibly rewarding. Will this movie carry the same potency later on as it does in 2020? I don't see why it wouldn't. It was made in a world that knew nothing of COVID (in fact, it has just occurred to me that it was almost certainly originally designed as an allegory for school shootings) and yet it honors the most terrifying feelings this age has produced: The weirdness of processing the deaths of people you knew but who weren't really your friends. The senselessness that reminds you that death is never a moral arbiter, happening to good and bad people alike for no real reason. The effort to draw conclusions and patterns from the meaningless horror that is life, centering them around yourself and driving your psyche to the brink of mania. The distrust the general public has of people to whom bad things have happened that they don't understand.
Spontaneous is a lot. Funny, sad, everything in between. That's because Spontaneous is honest. It is weird, fantastical, and out-of-the-box, but it is also true. Yikes.
For more on the movie, check out Rob & Carrie's interview with writer-director Brian Duffield
Brennan Klein is a millennial who knows way more about 80's slasher movies than he has any right to. You can find his other reviews on his blog Popcorn Culture. Follow him on Twitter, if you feel like it.