A film review by Craig J. Koban October 25, 2020


2020, R,  97 mins.

Katherine Langford as Mara Carlyle  /  Hayley Law as Tess McNulty  /  Piper Perabo as Angela  /  Charlie Plummer as Dylan  /  Kaitlyn Bernard as Skye  /  Chelah Horsdal as Denise  /  Rob Huebel as Charlie  /  Yvonne Orji as Agent Rosetti

Written and directed by Brian Duffield, based on the book by Aaron Starmer

SPONTANEOUS is one of the strangest high school romcoms that I can recall seeing.  It contains a premise that definitely has not been done before, which is really saying something for the jam packed, dime-a-dozen nature of the genre.  

This Brian Duffield written and directed affair deals with a suburban high school where its students start to...spontaneously explode.  

Not emotionally.  Not metaphorically.  They literally and physically just explode into geysers of blood and goo.  

Teens usually have to navigate through an awful lot awkward growing pains at this stage in their lives, but having the added burden of experiencing your friends and schoolmates blow up without any rhyme, reason, or warning is a whole other lever of nightmarish annoyance. 

So yeah...this is an extremely bizarre and macabre premise for a romcom.  

The aforementioned description alone may have some fleeing away from this film like the plague (to be fair, I guess one has to have a relative strong stomach to see people blow up and blow up repeatedly on screen for 90 minutes in graphic detail), yet Duffield (in his filmmaking debut) manages to achieve something Herculean here in terms of adeptly marrying together body disturbance horror with social satire and, yes, tender hearted adolescence romance with a reasonable smoothness.   Plus, SPONTANEOUS is not played for broad, farcical laughs (despite the underlining material being kind of darkly humorous), but instead manages to come off as heartfelt and relatable in terms of the whirlwind of emotions that these kids go through while dealing with a horrific dilemma that plagues them all.  SPONTANEOUS may be as preposterously high concept as they come, but the authentically rendered characters contained within humanizes it in rather thoughtful and unexpected ways. 

The high school and its students introduced early on in the film seem as ordinary and run of the mill as they come for these types of movies.  We first meet up with Mara (an invitingly effervescent Katherine Langford, at the top of her game here) as a Covington High School senior that's trying to deal with all of the obligatory stresses of teenage life and scholastic responsibilities.  Then one day and with a stark and nauseating suddenness, one of her classmates explodes in class, spewing out blood and bone matter everywhere (this will become a recurring visual motif in the story).  Predictably, the students and staff at the school are deeply horrified by this unexplainable event, but then another student bursts like a Pizza Pop overcooked in a microwave the very next day, leaving school officials realizing that some ghastly force is at play here. 



Now, this still is a romcom, so during all of this mad panic Dylan (a razor sharp Charlie Plummer) decides to make his true feelings about Mara felt, and the pair become an instant item, which is severely complicated by the fact that their friends are spontaneously dying daily.  Of course, just when things are starting to intimately evolve for Mara and Dylan, governmental agents and scientists swoop in on their high school and decide that the best course of action would be to quarantine all of the students away from the rest of society and try to get a medical handle on what's causing them to explode.  Obviously, the dull monotony of being in isolation from their families starts to weigh heavily on all of these kids, but Mara and Dylan try to make the best of their dire situation.  Unfortunately, when it appears that government intervention is not working and that more and more kids are combusting then it becomes clear to Mara and Dylan that they must live every day together as if it's going to be their last together...because...it easily might be.   

Have I already said how strange this movie is?  

Sarcasm aside, SPONTANEOUS manages the near impossible by both embracing the sickeningly bleak extremes of teens blowing up with delving into the confusion, anxiety, and endless levels of fear that these kids are going through, some of whom - like Mara and Dylan - use M.A.SH. levels of gallows humor to process all of the madness that surrounds them.  Outrageously weird concept aside, Duffield remains keenly focuses on developing his youth characters as sensitive human beings first.  This isn't some brainless, dead teenager slasher flick where these beings exist as props being served up for the slaughter.  SPONTANEOUS understands what's going on in the fragile mindsets of its characters even while reveling in the film's more gory sadism.  I've read of many that stated how Duffield's overall approach here is like a peculiar cocktail of John Hughes meets David Cronenberg, which is highly apt. 

Front and center, of course, is the presence of Langford and Plummer in the lead roles, and both have such an effortless on-screen rapport and chemistry that you do sincerely buy them as a high school couple.  Mara in particular is quite a fascinating creation, a bubbly and outspoken charmer that nevertheless has her sanity tested when it comes to processing and coping with all of the gruesome death that constantly dogs here and her classmates.  She reaches points in the story where she can't cope any more, so she devolves into rampant drug and alcohol abuse to numb her pain and sorrows.  Mara is likeable, to be sure, but is capable of also being toxically anti-social, but she remains such an engaging presence in large part to Langford's thanklessly layered performance, which has to straddle a fine line between making her not too bubbly nor too loathsome either.  Most crucially, her work is tied to the larger theme in SPONTANEOUS as to how kids experience traumatizing fear and unease and try, as best as they can, to make sense of a world so senseless. 

There's also an unintentional timeliness that permeates Duffield's film as well in terms of what it's trying to say.  SPONTANEOUS was clearly filmed well before the current COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the world, but the quarantine sequences at play here are undeniably eerie in how their echo current events (most specifically, in how schools across the world are dealing with a virus that can sicken and potentially kill people and without a current vaccine hope in sight).  Pushing forward, Duffield also might be using his crazy premise as a commentary piece on, say, the madness of school shootings that has permeated the U.S. and how students try to adapt to that hellishly possible event happening at their own schools.  There are many intriguing interpretations one could lean towards with SPONTANEOUS, but Duffield never cozily holds viewers' hands by providing easy answers.  Perhaps his film's best creative choice was in never once trying to rationalize the spontaneous combustion of these kids.  It's not a curse (as some townspeople have labeled it), nor something alien or supernatural at work.  It's just...well...happening and involves everyone trying to solve its mysteries and get life back to a plane of normalcy.  Boy, does that ever feel familiar right now.  

Duffield does make some mistakes here at there, though.  In true John Hughes-ian fashion, many of his adult characters are kind of marginalized and terribly underwritten (Mara's parents - played by Piper Perabo and very underrated Rob Heubel - curiously appear and then disappear from the narrative whenever it's convenient).  I also think that Duffield gets a bit to distracted with some of his stylistic choices and flourishes, which contains some fourth wall breaking from some characters, a voiceover narration track providing by Mara that only intermittently works, and a lot of pop culture laced dialogue exchanges and references that frequently stick out like sore thumbs.  I also think that Duffield manages to write himself into a bit of a corner in the final moments, which builds towards a final sequence that doesn't pay off as handsomely as I would have liked.  Yet, there's so much compelling material to unpack here in the film's tale of young people banding together in shared misery and uncertainty against a force that controls their lives that they can't explain or seemingly fight off.  Like all teens, SPONTANEOUS' characters exist in a vacuum unease in terms of not knowing what will come tomorrow; Duffield audaciously uses the conventions of the horror and comedy genres, mixes them together, and creates something darkly amusing and unpredictably earnest.  This is probably the most touching and contemplative movie ever made about teenagers blowing up.  It doesn't have much competition in that regard...but still.   

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