Spontaneous has notions of being this year’s Happy Death Day, with its caustic sense of humor and anti-heroine lead, but lands somewhere closer to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl only with considerably less pathos and a payoff so rushed and anticlimactic it’s a wonder the film doesn’t end with instructions to go to a website and watch the rest. It’s not that there isn’t room for indie cinema to cross over into horror comedy and make some kind of crazy mutant baby, but when both sides are so badly underrepresented, as they are here, it suggests maybe developing one side before diving into the other might be a smarter idea.
At least Katherine Langford finally changed her hair, that’s something (if you suffered through 13 Reasons Why, you’ll understand). She’s ostensibly the lead here, Mara, a petulant, disrespectful brat we’re supposed to empathise with because, I dunno, she gives people the finger a lot? What a rebel! Mara has loving parents (played by Piper Perabo and Rob Huebel, which must mean we’re all getting very old), a nice home, a BFF (Riverdale’s Hayley Law), and a boy with a crush on her (Charlie Plummer, looking like a cross between Kurt Cobain, Michael-Pitt-as-Kurt-Cobain, and Domhnall Gleeson that one time he played an albino).
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Unfortunately, at Mara’s typically bright and colourful high school that she hates for no apparent reason (nobody is mean to her, since this is a movie set in 2019), kids have begun spontaneously combusting. Without any rhyme, reason, or warning, they just…explode. The combustions, as Mara explains at one point, aren’t like bombs exploding, but more like balloons popping. “It was like a Cronenberg movie!” pipes up Plummer’s Dylan, which is a somewhat unflattering comparison considering there are no guts spewing everywhere, just boring ol’ blood (odd in an R-rated movie, but presumably the rating was for Mara’s near constant stream of F bombs).
Before too long, the army has shown up and all the kids are quarantined (making this particular moment a very strange one to be releasing Spontaneous upon the world). The confused teens are reassured that everybody is doing everything they can but, even after a vaccine is created, combustions continue to happen. The tension comes from whether Mara is to blame for the “curse,” and when either she or Dylan will fall victim to it. And, will they get to sleep together and/or go to Prom before that happens? Do we even care, considering neither of them is particularly likable and their relationship is so new it barely registers as an anchor for the story?
Spontaneous is a frustrating movie, which is actually kind of fitting considering the premise surrounds unexplainable events that, naturally, can’t be wrapped up with a bow at the end. The fact the deaths are bloody but not gory saps them of all shock value while the kids’ decision to run away every time another combustion happens isn’t played for laughs nearly as much as it should be. Actually, the whole thing is pretty somber, which jars against the constant jokes. Writer-director Brian Duffield, who also scripted this year’s rather good Kristen Stewart-starrer Underwater, adapts Aaron Starmer’s novel of the same name and there’s a sense that many of its nuances were perhaps left on the cutting room floor to facilitate a 100-minute movie (I haven’t read it, so can’t say for sure).
In this form, Spontaneous feels both baggy and underdeveloped. The relationship between Mara and Dylan is rushed and not in the least bit compelling. In 2020, the desire to watch yet another couple of suburban, middle class, straight white kids fall in love is practically non-existent. In order to sell it, there would have to be two very fine actors playing these parts and, unfortunately, Langford and Plummer just don’t cut it. Mara is a weird inversion for her, since the Aussie is most well known for playing a suicide victim in 13 Reasons Why. Here, she’s desperate not to die but the hard quality Langford had in that show isn’t just present, it’s front and centre. Mara spends so much of the movie acting like a dick, with no motivation for it.
Dylan, meanwhile, is a cypher, almost a manic pixie dream boy if such a thing existed. He’s a lovable, long-haired goof who never gets mad at Mara even when she’s acting terribly. There’s no reason to root for these two because they barely even know each other and what we do know of them and their relationship isn’t all that interesting. If anything, the focus should be on Mara’s relationship with her side-lined BFF who doesn’t seem to mind being ditched for Dylan. Or even the horny bisexual character that pops up, alongside several other divertingly funny classmates, none of whom are given space to make a proper impression, to argue with the suits for taking them away from their lives.
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The focus is blunt, the tone all over the place, with references to school shootings and cynical lines about “thoughts and prayers” sitting queasily alongside the whiny-ass indie soundtrack and picturesque cinematography, which makes the town of Covington look like a pretty nice place to live, actually. Spontaneous could stand to be sharper, edgier, and have clearer intentions beyond its oddly fatalistic attitude to young people (is this how teenagers are nowadays? I thought they were busy saving the world and standing up to the NRA?). It could also have a lead we don’t want to strangle, or just one compelling relationship. Spontaneous should also have decided whether it wanted to be a black horror-comedy like Happy Death Day or a sweet story about misfit teens like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl because somehow the film utterly fails at both.
Catch Spontaneous in select theaters from October 2, 2020
and on Premium VOD and Digital from October 6, 2020
WICKED RATING: 5/10
Director(s): Brian Duffield
Writer(s): Brian Duffield, Aaron Starmer (novel)
Stars: Katherine Langford, Charlie Plummer, Piper Perabo, Rob Huebel, Hayley Law
Release date: October 2, 2020 (select theaters), October 6, 2020 (VOD and Digital)
Studio/Production Company: Awesomeness Films
Run Time: 97 minutes