Photo: ‘Spontaneous’/Paramount Pictures
Unbearable workload. Pressure from your parents to excel. The constant fear of embarrassment. Being torn between wanting to belong in a peer group and being an individual. Having rumors spread about you. Not knowing if the people who act nice to your face say nasty things behind your back. Making and/or losing a friend. Not being noticed by your crush. Let’s face it: high school can be some of the worst years of a person’s life. And then they blow up. Not metaphorically or emotionally, but literally. BOOM, drenching anyone within the blast radius in blood.
That’s the world that the main characters in Spontaneous, written and directed by screenwriter Brian Duffield in his directing debut and based on the YA novel by Aaron Starmer, find themselves in. And yet against this horror-worthy backdrop, we have a darkly funny yet genuinely sweet and moving teen love story with likable characters and thematic depth; think The Fault in Our Stars crossed with David Cronenberg’s Scanners. The result is easily the best teen comedy of the year so far.
Love in the Time of ‘Spontaneous’ Combustion
Witty and sardonic teen Mara Carlyle (Katherine Langford) just wants to get through her senior year at Covington High School, with dreams of living in a beach house with her best friend Tess (Hayley Law). But as she sits in class one day, the girl sitting in front of her literally and spontaneously explodes into a bloody mess. And then another student explodes. And then another, throwing the town into a frenzy.
Authorities—represented by Special Agent Rosetti (Yvonne Orji)—try to make sense of these incidents, while parents—most notably Mara’s (Piper Perabo and Rob Huebel)—fear for their children’s safety; talk of a “Covington Curse” spreads. In the middle of the panic, the students try to resume their normal lives. Dylan (Charlie Plummer), an awkward but sweet classmate, decides to take the opportunity to confess his feelings to Mara, who he’s had a crush on. As the deaths continue and the government struggles to make sense of the incidents and find a cure, Mara and Dylan grow close and lean on each other for comfort, eventually beginning a romance. The two come to the realization that when your future is uncertain, living matters all the more.
I Think I’m Going to Explode
To start, the premise behind the movie—and by extension, the book—is pretty clever. We’re familiar by now with the more grounded YA coming-of-age stories that center on two lovers torn apart by either circumstance or illness. Besides Fault in Our Stars, think Everything, Everything, or All the Bright Places, or Midnight Sun, If I Stay, and Five Feet Apart. Those kinds of stories. It’s fun to picture this as being the next logical step: “What could be worse than giving them cancer or cystic fibrosis or whatever? How about having teens literally pop like a blood-filled balloon?”
Early on, the film gets a good deal of mileage in milking the scenario for dark Heathers-esque humor; whether it’s Mara continuing to crack wise and deciding to experiment with ‘shrooms to cope, showing up dressed as Carrie for Halloween, or a few of the eulogies for the dead students during the first act. Duffield’s screenplay skillfully uses these bits of humor, as well as smart but believable dialogue and quick pop culture references, to lighten things up and prime us for the story’s dark and emotional turns. He even evokes Martin Scorsese as well as Adam McKay’s more recent films through the use of fast-paced, occasionally fourth-wall-breaking montages of Mara narrating or providing backstories, and one interlude of Dylan telling Mara the story of his crush on her; he’s also adept in juggling tones between comedy, sweet romance, and sobering drama, milking suspense and a sense of dread from the premise as we don’t know who’s going to explode next or when (and when it does, it’s genuinely shocking). The third act in particular tackles themes of survivor guilt, grief, and coming to terms with the randomness of life in a genuinely moving manner.
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I haven’t been following Katherine Langford’s career that much—I missed out on 13 Reasons Why, Love, Simon, and Cursed—but I liked her in Knives Out. And she’s absolutely fantastic here. She wonderfully captures the fear and uncertainty lurking beneath her cool demeanor, and her downward spiral as more and more of her classmates die all around her and she comes to terms with her own mortality. She and Plummer, who turns in a very likable and sincere performance, especially have great chemistry together as they depict the growing bond between the two that’s equal parts tender (a slow dance in an empty barn) and funny (reenacting a scene from E.T. while in quarantine); you’re genuinely rooting for them to succeed. Law, Orji, Perabo, and Huebel also turn in strong supporting work, conveying the gradual fraying of Mara’s relationships as well as the helplessness of well-meaning parents and authority figures.
The Condition is Fantastical. The World is Real.
While teens being afflicted with spontaneous combustion is a somewhat fantastical concept, Duffield recognizes the idea’s potential for metaphor without belaboring on it too much. One potential reading of this is that the explosions could serve as a metaphor for all the pressures graduating seniors have to face: of reaching the point where they feel they now have to figure out what to do with their lives and seriously think about their futures.
But on one level, the film can easily be viewed as a commentary on the epidemic of mass school shootings in the United States, and of the anxiety and trauma survivors face. We see familiar images: panicking students racing to get out of the school and later checking in on each other in the parking lot, and the parents waiting helplessly to hear word of their kids. This repeats in a second genuinely harrowing sequence when multiple students start exploding. What’s most disturbing is how it mirrors real life: there’s no warning signs or screams; the teenagers are there one minute and just gone the next. And yet these kids must also try to continue with their daily lives as if it’s part of the new normal. While it sounds exploitative, Duffield manages to avoid this by also addressing the heartbreak and worry of those left behind with sincerity and sensitivity.
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On another level, while it was completed before the COVID-19 pandemic, real-world events have added more resonance to the film. Midway through, the Covington High seniors are taken by government scientists and placed under quarantine, believing that they’re infected with a disease that’s causing the explosions. Briefly cut off from their families, they’re questioned, monitored, and administered drugs in the hopes of finding a cure. Obviously, the filmmakers couldn’t predict that we’d now be able to empathize even more with what these kids are going through, having more or less gone through it ourselves. There’s some mild commentary as to the government struggling to solve the epidemic (the script thankfully doesn’t get bogged down in trying to explain the why of it), as well as some pointed jabs at Donald Trump and “thoughts and prayers”.
Ultimately though, the film does leave us with a message of acknowledging that sometimes there is no answer. The universe, and life in general, can be random and cruel; these teens don’t deserve to die in such a messy way, but as one character tells Mara, quoting Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it”. Life can be short and cruel, but you can either choose to give in to hopelessness, or make the most of your time on earth and choose to live a worthwhile and meaningful life. As much as the world doesn’t make sense, life is still worth living.
I love it when a movie actually lives up to the positive hype I’ve been hearing, and Spontaneous is among those movies that do just that. The movie skillfully walks that line between YA romance, dark comedy, and gory horror, thanks to solid directing, a strong script, and excellent lead performances. Like Booksmart last year, this is a movie that transcends its “teen movie” designation and is a straight-up really good movie, period. I highly recommend it.
By Mario Yuwono
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