October 7, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Brian Duffield
Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional U.S. suburban city called Covington, the sci-fi/horror comedy “Spontaneous” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: Two opposite teenagers fall in love during a mysterious plague that causes people to spontaneously combust.
Culture Audience: “Spontaneous” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unconventional teen comedies that have many dark themes and gory moments.
The poster for the movie “Spontaneous” makes it look like a typical carefree teen romantic comedy. This movie is definitely not carefree or a typical rom-com. In fact, the second half of the film gets so dark and depressing that unsuspecting viewers might wonder if they if they were duped into seeing the wrong movie. “Spontaneous” might not please people who are looking for a more conventional story, but if people are willing to experience a movie that takes some bold risks in the teen-oriented film genre, then “Spontaneous” is worth watching.
Brian Duffield wrote and directed “Spontaneous,” which is based on the novel of the same title by Aaron Starmer. The movie adeptly manages the difficult challenge of blending science fiction, horror and dark comedy. For the most part, it works. And thanks to a brutally sardonic performance by Katherine Langford, “Spontaneous” could very well become a cult classic for teen films.
In “Spontaneous,” Langford portrays Mara Carlyle, who narrates the story as if she’s looking back on her life several years later. When this story takes place, Mara is a senior at Covington High School in a fictional American suburban city called Covington. Mara doesn’t fall into a lot of movie stereotypes of pretty blondes in high school. She’s not a cheerleader, a star student, a popular girl, a stuck-up rich kid, or a girl who sleeps around. In fact, unlike most teen protagonists in movies, Mara doesn’t have any burning ambitions in life, she’s not obsessing over a crush, and she’s not trying to get anyone’s approval in particular, not even the approval of her best friend.
Mara’s best friend since elementary school is Tess McNulty (played by Hayley Law), who is as sensible and cautious as Mara is unpredictable and impulsive. Mara likes to get high on illegal drugs and get drunk, while Tess doesn’t do drugs and occasionally drinks alcohol, but never to the point where she’s vomiting or out of control. (The movie has several scenes where Mara spends a lot of her time intoxicated.)
Tess is a student who takes school seriously and has plans for college. Mara does just enough to get by academically and doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life after she graduates from high school. What these two girls have in common is a mutual respect for each other and a plan to eventually live together in a beach house when they’re old.
The movie gets to the “sci-fi/horror” aspect right away, when a student named Katelyn Ogden (played by Mellany Barros), who’s in one of Mara’s classes, suddenly and spontaneously explodes during a class session. There’s blood everywhere in the classroom, everyone runs out of the school screaming in horror, and people are left wondering why this bizarre death happened. As one of the students says later in describing the incident: “It was like a Cronenberg movie.”
Shortly before this incident, Mara had been getting anonymous text messages from a mystery admirer who told her in the messages that Mara has been a crush of this admirer for the past two years. In response, she texts this mystery person with a message saying, “No dick pics.” The secret admirer then texts her a picture of Richard Nixon, with the message, “Sorry, it’s crooked.”
Mara is intrigued and charmed by this person who seems to share her sarcastic sense of humor. While Tess and Mara hang out at a diner together after the “spontaneous combustion” incident, the secret admirer reveals himself. He asks if he could sit with them, and they say yes. Mara almost instantly guesses he’s the secret admirer from the way that he talks and looks at her.
His name is Dylan Hovemeyer (played by Charlie Plummer), who is also a senior at Covington High School. His personality is almost the opposite of Mara’s. Dylan is shy and awkward, while Mara is brash and confident. And although Dylan has pretty much made it clear that he could fall in love with Mara, she’s resistant to even saying the word “love” out loud and isn’t really looking for a serious relationship.
Mara is the type of person who will use illegal drugs or get drunk to escape from her problems or bad thoughts. Because of the trauma of witnessing the explosion firsthand, she decides to take a lot of psychedelic mushrooms in the tea that she’s drinking at the diner. By the time Dylan comes over to Mara and Tess’ table, Mara is flying high. But because she took so many mushrooms, she knows she’s going to get sick, so she asks Dylan to go with her to the diner’s restroom to hold her hair while she vomits.
Mara tells Dylan that she took a bunch of psychedelic mushrooms, so things might get weird. Sure enough, she tells Dylan that she’s seeing several clones of him in the bathroom. And she ends up vomiting a lot, while Dylan dutifully attends to her. Dylan thinks Mara’s hallucinations are kind of funny, and he’s more than happy to cater to Mara.
Mara decides that Dylan has passed an unofficial test of trust, since he saw her in a vulnerable state of intoxication and he didn’t judge her or take advantage of her, so she decides to hang out with him some more. They find out that they have the same taste in 1980s and 1990s rock music. Mara also likes Dylan’s quirks, such as later in movie when he buys a beat-up old milk-delivery/ice-cream truck and Mara thinks it’s one of the coolest vehicles she’s ever seen. Dylan and Mara, who both have no siblings, consider themselves to be outsiders who aren’t understood by very many people.
It should come as no surprise that Mara and Dylan end up dating each other and falling in love. But Mara is the type of girl who wants some independence, and she initially has a hard time admitting that Dylan is her boyfriend. And then there’s the possibility that Dylan will move away because of college. Dylan and Mara’s relationship begins at a time of the school year before students begin finding out which colleges they’ve applied to have accepted or rejected them. Mara and Dylan decide to just make the best of the time that they have together and figure it out as they go along.
On one of their first dates together, Dylan and Mara go to a football game, where on the field, one of the football players spontaneously explodes, which causes the expected bloody mayhem. And so begins a plague in the city where people randomly explode. It could happen to anyone at any time.
The FBI and other government agents descend on the city to investigate. One of those officials is Agent Rosetti (played by Yvonne Orji), who interviews many of the students at the high school, including Mara and Tess. Agent Rosetti is tough but compassionate as she tries to get to the bottom of this mystery. Every time Mara is questioned or interviewed by an authority figures, she gives snarky, unhelpful answers.
The students who were in the classroom of the first explosion are eventually put into a temporary quarantine together, where they go under intense medical exams. Mara predictably hates being confined, and she takes her resentment out on the authority figures. Here’s an example of Mara’s snide way of talking: During an examination with a doctor, the doctor asks Mara, “What do you want to do in college? Mara replies, “Stay alive.”
As more people start to explode in the city, religious conservatives begin flocking to Covington to hold protests because they believe the city’s residents, particularly the teenagers, are cursed by demons. They hold protests with picket signs that say things like, “The Devil Inside Your Children Has Found His Way Out,” “Covington Is Doomed” and “Repent or Perish.” Mara is not religious, but there comes a time when she, like many of the the other survivors, feels survivors’ guilt.
During all of this turmoil, Dylan and Mara become closer. He tells her that one of the reasons why he finally approached her after two years of admiring her from afar was because he doesn’t know how much longer they might have to live. Dylan also opens up about how the death of his father (who passed away from a heart attack) deeply affected him. Dylan, who used to live on a farm, says that after his father died, he would sometimes go in the barn and dance my himself while listen to his father’s favorite music.
“Spontaneous” has moments of sweet sentimentality, but most of the tone for this comedy is acerbic and occasionally it gets very bleak. The movie includes portrayals of overwhelming depression and substance abuse that get to dangerous levels. And unlike a lot of teen-oriented movies, there aren’t necessarily people coming to the rescue to help set any troubled teens down the right path.
Mara can be rude, selfish and irresponsible, but she also has a vulnerable, caring and loyal side that she shows to only a few special people in her life, including her parents. Mara’s parents Charlie (played by Rob Huebel) and Angela (played by Piper Perabo) want to be “cool” with Angela, so they smoke marijuana with her and they’re reluctant to discipline her. When she stays out past curfew time, they worry, but they don’t really punish her, since she’s almost 18 years old.
Some people watching “Spontaneous” might not warm up to Mara because she’s so flawed and has a “no filter” attitude, where she says what she thinks, even though it might be unpleasant or insensitive. On Halloween, when the students go to school wearing costumes, Mara dresses up as the fictional horror character Carrie (the bullied teen in Stephen King’s novel of the same name), who notoriously had a bucket of pig’s blood poured on her at her school prom.
However, Mara’s “Carrie” prom dress doesn’t have blood on it, because Mara is aware that it would be in bad taste, given the spontaneous bloody explosions that started with fellow student Katelyn Ogdon. When Dylan (who’s dressed as an Amish person) first sees Mara in the costume, he immediately guesses that she’s dressed as the “Carrie” horror character. Mara loves that Dylan instantly knew what her costume was, but she adds that “Katelyn fucked it up,” as in it was Katelyn’s “fault” that Mara couldn’t wear blood on the dress.
The editing of “Spontaneous” could have been improved somewhat in the last third of the story, when some self-destructive things that Mara does get repetitive and tend to drag down the pacing of the movie. However, the tender romance between Mara and Dylan is very easy to like and is by far the best part of the movie. Langford and Plummer’s chemistry together is warm, funny and absolutely enjoyable to watch. They both give very good performances in the movie—not the type that will win major awards, but the type that will be used as examples of how to act in a genre-bending teen comedy.
“Spontaneous” does not skimp on the gore, so people who are easily nauseated by the sight of blood might want to steer clear of watching this movie. Even without the spontaneous combustion and all the bloody scenes, the message of “Spontaneous” is loud and clear: Life can be messy. You can either be afraid or live each day as if it’s your last.
Paramount Pictures released “Spontaneous” in select U.S. cinemas on October 2, 2020, and on digital and VOD on October 6, 2020.