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 RosettiWritten 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.
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.
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?
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
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.