It’s in the strangest of places that we often find that which affirms life. It could be a sunrise, a child’s laugh, a taste of pumpkin spice pick-a-thing, a song you’ve heard a million times, or a film you’re experiencing for the first time. Considering the doom and gloom that surrounds us, a reminder that life is a precious commodity worth savoring in both the highs and lows is a necessity. Strangely enough, the adaptation of author Aaron Starmer’s 2016 YA science fiction book Spontaneous may give you just that, even as the death toll rises within the bittersweet tale of loss and young love. Set to hit select theaters October 2nd before a home release on the 6th, director Brian Duffield’s (The Babysitter, writer) feature debut perfectly balances the metaphysical terror of shifting to adulthood with the terror of literal spontaneous combustion. To call it one of the bigger surprises of 2020 would not be an understatement.
Mara Carlyle (Katherine Langford) is your typical disaffected high school senior. Aware that the world sucks, she’s not altogether shocked when one of her classmates suddenly combusts during math class. As she, her best friend Tess McNulty (Hayley Law), and the rest of her graduating class at Covington High School are placed under a microscope by the Feds, they all try not to lose hope in the face of unquestionably incredible circumstances, circumstances which make tomorrow, even the next moment, entirely uncertain. The once totally invincible teens discover that with that uncertainty comes an entirely new question: what would you do *now* if you knew it could be over spontaneously?
If you’re anything like me, you took a look at the cast list — Langford, Law, Charlie Plummer (Words on Bathroom Walls), Piper Perabo (Covert Affairs), Rob Huebel (Izzy Get the F*ck Across Town) — and wondered why Spontaneous wasn’t making more noise. On her own, Langford has proven to be a giant draw after strong performances in Love, Simon (2018) and Knives Out (2019). She’s also headed Netflix shows 13 Reasons Why (2017) and Cursed (2020). Plus, you add in audiences for Riverdale, for which Law is among the cast, and Plummer, whose recent Words is one of the best films of 2020, and Spontaneous is set up to be a banger of a Fall release. Yet, though it possesses one of the more original premises for a YA coming-of-age romance in recent memory, one in which high schoolers randomly pop like water balloons, my guess is that the studios are wary that the current pandemic may turn audiences away from features involving things like spontaneous combustion, even though we’re approaching Halloween, a season that is typically ripe for such fare, and are unplaying their hand. To a degree, this makes sense. We’re already forced to think about our mortality at every moment, questioning every slight cough, every little tickle of the throat, every change in cognitive function, so who wants to voluntarily go through that routine in our downtime? The thing is, Spontaneous is not the dark exploration of existence you might expect. Duffield gathered together performers who beautifully capture the angst of adolescence and presents their terrifying adventure in a manner which is at once real and totally unexpected, using humor in a variety of creative ways to balance the inherent darkness of the tale.
Having not read Starmer’s novel, I can’t speak to the accuracy of its translation. In fact, there’s a narrative thread involving a federal officer, played with a subtle hilarity by Yvonne Orji (Insecure), that’s never fully explained, but, otherwise, the entirety is completely accessible and never offers the sense of shortcuts or omission in order to enjoy the whole. Upon researching, the novel is told from Mara’s perspective and Duffield’s adaptation entirely honors this to hysterical affect. The start of the film includes Mara addressing the audience directly and is used sparingly throughout the course of the film, much in the same way a novel seeks to pull in the audience, to make them a co-conspirator to events or, in this case, being informed directly of the strange circumstances surrounding Covington High. What’s nice is, upon Plummer’s Dylan’s inclusion, a young man romantically interested in Mara, he’s given the same ability to talk directly to us as he recalls the events preceding his declaration of affection for Mara. What can be initially seen as the continuation of a narrative tool also signifies how Mara feels for Dylan, even if subconsciously. We are her conscripts, her confidants, yet Dylan is allowed the same courtesy of direct communication. It only happens once, but it’s used brilliantly to convey Dylan’s character as well as to lay the groundwork for why Mara would connect with him so quickly and easily. Even in the heightened circumstances, Spontaneous goes out of its way to highlight the respectful and purposeful connection between Mara and Dylan. Don’t confuse this statement as proclaiming the film entirely a love story, as it is, purposefully and truly, a coming-of-age tale centered on Mara overcoming her general indifference.
In addition to the performances, what is particularly striking are the ways in which the film subtly communicates. At the exact moment Mara and Dylan share their first kiss, the lights framing them grow brighter. This, of course, is meant to signify their burgeoning connection growing stronger. Honestly, it’s either on purpose or an accident resulting from the camera moving in for a close-up so the lights seem to grow brighter, but either way its kitschiness is subverted by the overall adorableness. Then there’s when we’re first introduced to Dylan. He’s quoting a film. Later on, the same happens with his mother Denise (Chelah Horsdal), conveying the connection between mother and son is more than maternal. Or from the fantastic editing used in the depiction of the combustion events, each one occurring primarily without set-up, hint, or preview, making them genuinely off-putting even as the audience never actually sees it occur. The audience is never in full view of an event when it occurs. It’s almost entirely presented as just outside our perspective. This establishes how unprovoked each instance is, creating the sense that it matters not what the characters want in the moment, that the time to combust truly can be anytime. Within the larger theme of seeking purpose and connection, this is extraordinarily poignant. Though it could be the times making it seem that way. It’s darkly hilarious just how much fake blood is used within Spontaneous, yet that macabre humor is displaced by veritable, palatable terror and discomfort as the audience goes further into the film, getting to know these characters more deeply. Suddenly they aren’t just victim #1, but individuals we get to know.
Filled with laughs, heart, and buckets of blood, Spontaneous is the unlikely film we may actually need right now. Even when the film goes to its most terrifying (there’s a moment I wished I’d seen in the theater just to have experienced it 65’x 30’), it never loses its narrative core or its hopeful spirit. The film doesn’t get “end of the world” bleak, though there are moments as a parent which certainly felt that way, but it does use the metaphor of combustion to generate individual personal growth, to incite a necessary, if painful, change. Does this mean that what we think or feel as a teen doesn’t matter as an adult? No. In fact, I think Spontaneous implies that these feelings stay with us into adulthood. It’s just that we can’t put off adulthood nor is adulthood guaranteed. So if you get the chance to do a thing you’ve always wanted to do with the people that matter, you should do it. Even in today’s society where that means adhering to social guidelines, you can still do and try things which move you forward as a person. We don’t know how much time we have. May as well make the most of it.
In select theaters October 2nd, 2020.
Available on home video October 6th, 2020.
For more information, head to the official Paramount page for Spontaneous.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.