Spontaneous is a teen coming-of-age horror romantic tragicomedy that was filmed in early 2018 and is, for some reason, just now seeing the light of day in the latter half of 2020. I have no idea why it sat for so long and why it’s barely getting promoted at all now that it’s finally being released. Spontaneous is one of the best teen coming-of-age films I’ve seen in years. Actually, we might be into all-time-great territory. It’s sharp, unpredictable, hilarious, terrifying, and has a shocking amount of heart and emotional depth.
Mara (Katherine Langford) is a high school student who just started her senior year. One day, a classmate who’s sitting in front of her literally explodes – spontaneously combusts in front of the entire class. Students are taken into quarantine as the government struggles to get to the bottom of why this is happening and how to prevent it from happening in the future. But they’ll soon learn this is going to happen again, and it’s going to happen a lot. Mara’s classmate Dylan (Charlie Plummer) declares his feelings for her, as he realizes he may not have the opportunity to much longer. A romance begins to blossom between the two outcasts, as they begin to realize they must begin to live every moment as if it’s their last.
The visual of a person spontaneously exploding, blood and guts flying everywhere, and everyone in the room screaming and running for their lives makes it pretty obvious what this is really about. Spontaneous is a thinly veiled metaphor for school shootings, and the day-to-day horror students must feel as these disasters become more and more commonplace. However, Spontaneous is also about government ineptitude in the face of a crisis, as lawmakers in Washington promise something will be done to keep these students safe, that never is. It’s also a teen movie about survivor’s guilt, and how one goes about surviving when their friends are dying in front them every day.
This is obviously tackling a lot for a teen movie, and the reason Spontaneous is so impressive is because it earns every jarring tonal shift and every big emotion, and it makes it all feel effortless. Writer/director Brian Duffield adapted Aaron Starmer’s YA novel of the same name, which I have not read, however I find it hard to believe the source material is this deft and this timely. Having been on the shelf for two-plus years, it’s amazing how right-this-very-moment Spontaneous feels. It’s a school shooting allegory but it’s also very much a pandemic movie. Students are abducted and taken to government research facilities where people in hazmat suits are doing tests on them. The students are confused, scared and utterly disoriented, and no one knows why it’s happening or when it’s going to stop. You know, kind of how it feels to live in America in 2020.
Katherine Langford expands upon her work in 13 Reasons Why, and gives the best performance of her career so far. Mara is witty, foulmouthed and acerbic, but she’s also deeply vulnerable and she doesn’t know how to deal with the trauma of what’s happening around her. Langford eagerly sells every single emotional beat the script is calling for. One thing this movie does that teen movies don’t do is that teen drinking and drug use don’t look like fun. Mara starts drinking and doing drugs because she doesn’t know how to deal with her own trauma, and doesn’t know how to make sense of what her life has become. And the script’s explanation of why she’s doing this is very sharp and honest.
Charlie Plummer recently gave one of my favorite performances of the year in Words on Bathroom Walls, another YA novel adaptation that was filmed in 2018 and sat around for two years before the studio released it. He’s doing very good work here as well, and he has a naturally engaging chemistry with Langford that gives this romance higher stakes than most, and makes the viewer deeply care about this relationship from the very beginning. I hope Plummer can recover from these two very good performances being buried by studios, because he has so much to offer audiences, and I hope he has a long career ahead of him.
In the end, Spontaneous is a teen horror-romantic-tragicomedy that’s going for a lot, almost too much, but manages to earn everything it aims for thematically and emotionally. Brian Duffield’s surprisingly wise script nails the uncertainty of what it’s like to be a young person thrust into a horrifyingly uncertain world they never asked for, and provides a truly hopeful message. Life can be random and terrifying and often it makes no sense, but ultimately there’s always a way to make the most of the time you have on this earth. Spontaneous is hilarious, intense and surprisingly powerful and it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.