As far as premises go, Spontaneous has a wholly unique one. The movie, written and directed by screenwriter Brian Duffield (Underwater, The Babysitter) in his directorial debut, follows a teenager as her life is turned upside down when her classmates start exploding. This premise is pulled from the novel of the same name written by Aaron Starmer on which Spontaneous is based. But the strange concept of teens spontaneously combusting is used to explore universal themes of love and loss. Bloody, fun and achingly heartfelt, Spontaneous presents a clever and original story about life, love and how suddenly things can change.
Mara Carlyle (Katherine Langford) is having an uneventful senior year of high school when a classmate suddenly explodes in class – pops like a balloon, as she describes it. The traumatic event impacts everyone in different ways, including Dylan (Charlie Plummer), who confesses he’s had a crush on Mara for two years and doesn’t want to spontaneously combust without having told her. Their relationship develops as more classmates combust, and as they’re quarantined while the government runs tests and attempts to develop a treatment to prevent the exploding. But after a particularly devastating event, Mara’s world is changed forever and she’ll have to figure out how to move forward.
Part sci-fi flick, part rom-com and a wholly coming-of-age story, Spontaneous is a genre-bending movie that has a particularly poignant message about dealing with change and loss. Those themes get a little lost in the third act, though this is reflective of Mara’s own struggles. Still, there’s a strange stilted pace to Spontaneous as it rushes through the first two acts to hit a lot of story beats, which is undoubtedly a result of being adapted from a book. It doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the movie, though the fast-paced beginning causes the slowdown in the third act to stand out – and drag – all the more. Ultimately, Spontaneous is saved from these minor pacing issues by the cleverness of the script and story, as Duffield proves himself adept at writing whip-smart and laugh-out-loud funny dialogue.
Anchoring the movie, and delivering excellent line-readings of Duffield’s script, is Langford as the imperfect Mara. Langford has proven her talent many times in recent years after breaking out in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, and she once again offers a compelling performance in Spontaneous. Mara is by no means a perfect teenager, but Langford brings a charm to the character so that even when Mara is at her worst, viewers are compelled to root for the girl. Spontaneous is further bolstered by Plummer, who skillfully plays the quiet and adorable Dylan opposite Langford’s brash Mara. Their dynamic is a bit of a genderbent take on teen comedies, but the actors carry it off very well, bringing an exceptionally sweet romance to life. Beyond the two leads, Spontaneous boasts a talented supporting cast, with Piper Perabo and Rob Huebel especially shining as Mara’s parents; Hayley Law is given significantly less to work with as Mara’s best friend Tess. But Spontaneous is Langford’s movie and she’s what makes it work.
In the end, Duffield delivers a singular kind of movie in Spontaneous that feels especially poignant in 2020. It’s difficult not to notice the parallels between the characters of Spontaneous reckoning with a deadly disease as our own world is still dealing with a pandemic, and those similarities help to drive the points of the movie home. It’s cathartic to see Mara struggle to deal with the trauma of her classmates dying, the fear that it might happen to her and all the messy emotions that come from grief while viewers may be going through something similar. Since Spontaneous was filmed long before COVID-19, these parallels are unintentional, but still serve to make Duffield’s film and its message perfect for the exact moment it’s being released.
As a result, Spontaneous is certainly worth checking out, and with the film hitting theaters and digital within days of each other, viewers can do so in whichever manner they feel safe. That said, though the premise may veer into sci-fi and horror territory, Spontaneous is much more of a romance and coming-of-age movie, so anyone less interested in those aspects may want to check their expectations. There’s certainly plenty of blood and horror, and a bit of science fiction (but only in the loosest sense), which makes Spontaneous an atypical Halloween movie that will still make for a good spooky season watch. Altogether, Spontaneous has plenty of fun banter, gut-punching heart and some truly disgusting horror wrapped up in a fun flick that’s sure to entertain viewers who give it a chance.
Spontaneous is now playing in U.S. theaters and is available on digital Tuesday, October 6. It is 97 minutes long and rated R for teen drug and alcohol use, language and bloody images throughout.
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