Ever feel so bored sitting in class that you wished something, anything would happen to end the monotony? Forty-five seconds into Spontaneous, a teenager spontaneously combusts in the middle of a sleepy calculus class as the student who gets drenched in the disgusting aftermath screams “she’s all over me!” Talk about being careful of what you wish for. Soon, it’s revealed that this will not be the last time this happens, and the question becomes: what would you do with your life if you knew you could explode at any time, for no reason at all?
Our narrator Mara, played perfectly and boldly by Katherine Langford, is there to help guide us through it all. She’s got a lot on her plate, from the exploding teenagers in her town to her new romance with fellow disaffected and witty movie-lover Dylan (Charlie Plummer, who gets to show his funny side in a role lightyears away from his character in Looking For Alaska). Dylan is inspired to confess his long-gestating crush to Mara when he sees just how short life can be, and the romance they embark on is the best part of the film. The chemistry between Langford and Plummer makes for some great laughs and tender moments, with one E.T. tribute gag making me laugh out loud. As the two work through their bucket list dreams together (featuring copious amounts of underage drinking, and can you blame them?), you root for these crazy kids to make it through the whole bloody mess to the other side.
But Spontaneous isn’t just a teen comedy with a twist and a growing body count. It has a lot to say about loss, and what it is like to live in a state of limbo without giving in to despair. It’s a biting satire of government ineptitude and media coverage of tragic events. In a highlight, the government swoops in to run tests and quarantine the teens in an effort to find out what’s going on. As the group of angry and scared kids pepper the investigators with questions, the poor government researcher forced to face them can only feebly offer “thoughts and prayers” as Mara’s questions become more pointed and insistent. Another hilarious sequence directly goes after current politics as Mara imagines a future where she is the President of the United States.
But there is no reason for the explosions, nothing to blame and no way to insulate from the impact, both emotionally and literally. When the film makes a drastic change in tone near the end, the effect this uncertainty and fear has on Mara reveals the truth that behind the tough exterior, she is as frightened and sad as everyone else. Much like teenagers living with the threat of gun violence or climate change or the myriad of social justice issues facing the world, Mara is expected to react stoically and politely to a world that has revealed itself to be random in its tragedies at best and targeted at worst. She’s angry, and she doesn’t understand why everyone wants her to pretend to be otherwise. In a darkly accurate scene between Mara and her parents, she wryly remarks, “at least now you can’t say ‘things were so much harder back in my day’.” Her mother simply responds, “you’re right, you have it way worse.”
For a film conceived, written, and shot well before the COVID-19 pandemic, Spontaneous perfectly captures the existential dread of the current moment while delivering on its premise of laughs mixed with typical teen shenanigans. It manages to be original while paying tribute to the films that directly inspired it. Call it luck or fate that this film was released in a moment where so many of us are struggling with anxiety over the future, but Spontaneous expresses the feelings of this moment without being so “of the moment” that it will date itself in a year or two. It’s Heathers for Gen-Z, and like that film, it brilliantly skewers society as it is right now while revealing those essential teenage emotions that are timeless. With any luck, it will join the ranks of the top teen movies out there and find a wide audience with those looking for a hilarious, and at times tragic, escape from reality.
Spontaneous is available now on-demand. Watch the trailer below!