Nothing beats the feeling of a watching a movie that stuns you with how phenomenal it is. It’s a feeling that doesn’t happen more than a few times a year, if you’re lucky, but when it does, you can’t help but be reminded what the beginning of your love affair with cinema felt like. For me, it’s a shot to the heart, as well as a jolt to the brain. It’s rare, but when it happens, you treasure it. Spontaneous is the latest film that gave me this feeling, and considering just how singular and unique it is, there’s a fair chance that it’ll do the same to you. A Young Adult romantic dramedy of sorts, one could be forgiven for expecting a cancer-free version of something like The Fault in Our Stars (which, admittedly, I love), but wait, there’s also David Cronenberg-level gore, with teenagers literally exploding. Yeah, I have your attention now.
Spontaneous walks an incredibly thin tightrope, balancing YA romance, teen angst, comedy, drama, and gory horror. If that sounds nearly impossible to do, writer/director Brian Duffield manages to succeed where almost all others would likely fail. The less you know going in, aside from the hybrid nature of the work, the more likely you are to be stunned by the final product. I know I was.
It’s rare that a film can appeal to just about anybody, especially with such extreme content, but this manages to pull it off. If the YA romantic feelings of work like The Fault in Our Stars strikes your fancy, this has that in spades. If you like your horror to wink at you, this does that without ever ignoring the stakes. Mostly, if you like incredibly sharp writing, characters you want to spent time with, and a narrative that upends your expectations, this is very much that. If Wes Craven, John Green, and Kevin Smith put their heads together for a project, they might have come up with something like this wonderful flick.
High School seniors always feel like whatever they’re going through is the most dramatic and serious thing in the world. Mara Carlyle (Katherine Langford) is one such senior, a smart and sarcastic teen who hopes to just live out her older days at a beach house with her best friend Tess McNulty (Hayley Law). As Mara sat in class one day, her school/classmates find themselves with that aforementioned feeling times 1000 when a student spontaneously combusts one day. She literally explodes. Authorities initially worry if it’s a terrorist act, but Mara’s classmate Dylan (Charlie Plummer) remarks at the station that it was like something out of a Cronenberg movie, catching Mara’s attention. As she narrates, the hope was that it would be the end of things. Unfortunately, many more students are about to explode, throwing the town into a frenzy.
As the explosive deaths continue, Mara and Dylan begin a tentative romance. They’re similarly weird, able to joke about the tragedies around them, but also keenly aware that their time on this planet may be limited. Mara’s parents (Rob Huebel and Piper Perabo) can only help so much, but Dylan is somehow exactly what she needs in this situation, and likewise. When more students die, the government steps in to quarantine the surviving teenagers in a lab, hoping to find a cure. Mara and Dylan only grow closer, especially as they start to lose friends. Turns out, the less you think that tomorrow is a given, the more you live (and love) for today. The less said about the third act, however, the better, as this goes to bold, emotional, and even unexpected places.
Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer are phenomenally paired here, exuding charm, chemistry, and an ability to match emotional stakes with comedic timing. Langford is especially great, channeling some of the vibrancy we see out of Brie Larson, mixed with her own special concoction. When she gets to go big, she really shines. Plummer could have been somewhat of the male version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or Dream Boy, here), but strong writing and his believable humanity set him apart. Together, they’re the screen couple of the year, so far. Supporting players like Rob Huebel, Hayley Law, Yvonne Orji, and Piper Perabo all get their moments, but this is a showcase for Langford and Plummer.
This is a real coming out party for filmmaker Brian Duffield, making his directorial debut here. Duffield has been a credited screenwriter on diverse work like The Babysitter, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Jane Got a Gun, and Underwater, but none of that will prepare you for this. Adapting the novel by Aaron Starmer, Duffield not only proves that he’s a solid director, creatively staging the gore and extracting maximum tension from the situation, he breathes incredible life into the script. Smart, witty, and consistently able to upend your expectations, it’s work that makes him a storyteller to look out for. Duffield consistently walks the line of going too far, but never goes over the edge. A harrowing sequence where multiple students explode is staged almost as if it were a school shooting. What might have been exploitative instead comes off as a current nightmare depicted in a slightly askew way. Against the odds, it works, leaving you breathless.
Watching this film is somehow also a timely experience. A mix of comedy, horror, and romance being one of the seminal experiences of 2020? You bet. Why? Well, it’s in the execution (aside from literally involving a forced quarantine). This year has been one of the most trying and potentially worst on record, but we’ve all found little moments of joy where we can. In Spontaneous, Mara and Dylan fall in love as violent death looms literally at any moment. They’re aware, all too aware, but find their brief bits of happiness, whether it’s making out or dancing to The Hooters’ catchy tune “And We Danced.” That scene alone will fill you with joy, while others take your breath away.
Spontaneous demands your attention. Duffield, translating Starmer’s book of the same name to the screen, makes sure of it. Your heart actually races, since not only is a strong romance being depicted, but violent death could literally occur at any moment. His sense of pacing keeps you on your toes, though you’ll assuredly cry out in surprise at least once, if not more often. There are shocking moments, without question, but never for shock value. It’s all in service of a full cinematic meal.
Now playing in theaters and hitting VOD tomorrow, Spontaneous is a truly unexpected gem. Whatever you’re expecting it to be, it’s something else entirely. It has been a bit since something blew me away like this, so consider it very high praise. If the year ended today, Spontaneous would be high up on my 2020 top ten list. If that’s not evidence enough that this is something special, what is?