As far as teen-centric dark comedies go, Spontaneous is easily one of the best I’ve seen in years. Based on Aaron Starmer’s novel of the same name, this adaptation of Spontaneous from Brian Duffield perfectly captures the high school experience—particularly senior year, when students are filled with so much hope, but also are contending with a great deal of uncertainty about what the future holds as they are being thrust into adulthood—and delivers up an experience that’s wildly unpredictable and exciting, but also horrifying and heartbreaking all the same.
In Spontaneous, we are introduced to Maya Carlyle (Katherine Langford), a smart and confident high school senior whose world is rocked when, during class, one of her fellow students inexplicably explodes. From there, more of Maya’s peers end up combusting out of nowhere, causing a great deal of panic in the school and the community. Realizing that time could be fleeting, Maya gets texted out of the blue by fellow senior Dylan (Charlie Plummer), who professes that he has a crush on her, and the two start dating, realizing that they should be living in the moment, because nothing is guaranteed. As they fall in love, both Maya and Dylan contend with more of their classmates falling victim to this explosive phenomenon, and with the government injecting themselves into the situation in hopes of developing a cure, the two lovebirds do all that they can to cherish every moment they have, because they’re not sure if it’ll be their last.
As most of us know, high school can already be a tough thing for any teenager to get through. But by forcing these kids in Spontaneous to face their own mortality in ways most us never had to do, we’re left with an endearing and often hilarious story that has this added emotional layer to it that feels totally unique. When you’re that age, where it feels like your life is just about to start, most of us aren’t contemplating that death could be lurking just around the corner. It’s a time when everything is so focused on your future, and the way that Spontaneous pulls the proverbial rug out from underneath these seniors is brilliant and gives us a very different point of view for a teen-centric film. The concept of spontaneous combustion, of course, provides this story with a heightened sense of urgency, where these characters cannot waste a single breath because, quite literally, any given moment could be their last, and it often had me thinking about the things I would do differently if I were compelled to live my life the way these characters had to.
What’s also interesting about Spontaneous is that, even though it went into production before there was even a hint of COVID-19, and Starmer’s novel was written back in 2016, there’s an eerie timeliness to this story that I found to be quite surprising. After a handful of the students of Covington High mysteriously explode, the rest of their classmates are whisked away to be quarantined at a government facility. Because no one knows just what the hell is going on, they are all subjected to a series of tests and trial medications in hopes that those in charge can find a way to stop these kids from combusting. After they’re released, the seniors must attend school in isolation, as the rest of their classmates are sent to other locations to receive their education, and man, does all of that just sound an awful lot like what’s going on these days in the world (or at least here in the U.S.). That stretch of the film felt just a bit too real, but it also provides Duffield the chance to give us an amusing hat tip to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which I definitely enjoyed.
And of course, these parallels are all coincidental, but the way Spontaneous just so happens to tap into some real-life trauma that students are currently dealing with in regards to COVID-19 is pretty dang eerie all the same, and really made me empathize with what a lot of students are dealing with these days.
While I found both Langford and Plummer to be an absolute delight together in Spontaneous (hell, the whole cast is just aces), this story really centered around Mara’s journey, and Langford proves in Spontaneous that she’s one of the most compelling talents of her generation. She navigates her way through the highs and lows of Mara’s experience—facing the unknown, watching classmate after classmate explode violently, falling in love, and working her way through the all-consuming nature of grief all while wondering if and when her time will be up—with the greatest of ease. There is such a sense of raw humanity that Langford brings to her character in this film and I just absolutely adored everything about her performance.
One thing also worth noting is that it was nice to see a teen centric story that took the time to treat the parental characters as important figures in the narrative, and made them feel wholly authentic to boot. That doesn’t happen too often, but I appreciated that Spontaneous takes the time to make sure every character feels like they matter, regardless of their function in the film.
As far as directorial debuts go, Duffield has a lot to be proud of in terms of what he manages to achieve with Spontaneous. It’s a movie that hooks you right from the beginning (seriously, strap in for those first three minutes), will have you laughing and crying throughout (being the big softie that I am, I cried twice), and then once it’s over, leaves you with some rather profound food for thought. An experience that is sincere as it is side-splitting, Spontaneous is a film I cannot recommend enough, even if (like me) your high school days are far behind you now.
Movie Score: 5/5
Spontaneous will be available on premium VOD & digital on October 6th