Review: ‘Spontaneous,’ starring Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer

October 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Charlie Plummer and Katherine Langford in “Spontaneous” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Spontaneous”

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.

Hayley Law and Katherine Langford in “Spontaneous” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

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.

Review: ‘Call Your Mother,’ starring David Spade, Louie Anderson, Awkwafina, Roy Wood Jr., Norm Macdonald, Kristen Schaal, Bridget Everett and Fortune Feimster

May 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

David Spade and his mother, Judy Todd, in “Call Your Mother” (Photo by Jenna Rosher/Comedy Central)

“Call Your Mother”

Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Culture Representation: The documentary “Call Your Mother” features a racially diverse (white, African American and Asian) group of mostly American comedians talking about how their mothers have affected their lives, with some of the comedians’ mothers also participating in the documentary,.

Culture Clash: Some of the comedians describe having nonconformist or dysfunctional childhoods that are often used as material for their stand-up comedy acts.

Culture Audience: “Call Your Mother” will appeal primarily to people who want to learn more about the family backgrounds of some well-known comedians.

Louie Anderson with a picture of his mother, Ora Zella Anderson, in “Call Your Mother” (Photo by Alex Takats/Comedy Central)

If you ask any stand-up comedian who’s the family member most likely to inspire material for their stand-up comedy act, chances are the comedian will answer, “My mother.” With that in mind, the documentary “Call Your Mother” interviews a variety of comedians (and some of their mothers) to talk about how with these mother-child relationships have affected the comedians’ lives. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, “Call Your Mother” might not have a deep impact on society, but it accomplishes what it intends to do. The film is a mostly light-hearted, sometimes emotionally moving and occasionally raunchy ride that will give some psychological insight into how and why these comedians ended up where they are now.

“Call Your Mother” includes interviews with a notable list of comedians (almost all of them are American), including Louie Anderson, Awkwafina, Jimmy Carr, Bridget Everett, Fortune Feimster, Rachel Feinstein, Judah Friedlander, Jim Gaffigan, Judy Gold, Jen Kirkman, Jo Koy, Bobby Lee, the Lucas Brothers, Norm Macdonald, Jim Norton, Tig Notaro, Yvonne Orji, Kristen Schaal, David Spade and Roy Wood Jr.

In some cases, the mothers of these comedians are interviewed alongside their comedic children: Everett, Feimster, Schaal, Spade and Wood all have wisecracking moments with their mothers, who are also shown in the audiences while their children are on stage, as well as backstage or at home. Former “Saturday Night Live” star Macdonald is also interviewed with his mother.  (For whatever reason, no Latino comedians are in the documentary, which is a shame, because there are many Latino comedians who talk about their mothers in their stand-up acts.)

Bridget Everett’s mother, Freddie Everett, is memorable for being as foul-mouthed and crude as Bridget. (Freddie even gives the middle finger to the camera, but all in good fun.) Bridget Everett says, “My mother is really one of a kind. She’s the person you meet that you never forget. She can be kind of mean, but somehow she gets away with it.”

Bridget continues, “She’s got a real naughty streak in her,” when describing how her mother was the type to wear very revealing outfits in places where it would be inappropriate for a woman’s breasts to be openly displayed. “There’s something really liberating about that in a small, conservative town.”

Like many of the comedians interviewed in this documentary, Bridget Everett is a child of divorce. After her parents’ divorce, her mother Freddie (who raised six kids) would take a pre-teen Bridget with her to stalk her ex-husband, mainly to see if he was dating anyone new or other reasons to spy on his post-divorce love life.

Bridget remembers her mother telling her to look in windows and report what she saw to her mother. These experiences are part of Bridget Everett’s stand-up act.  And just like her mother used to do when she was young, Bridget Everett dresses in cleavage-baring outfits on stage. “My mom pulses through my performance,” she says. “It’s really a tribute to her.”

British comedian Carr says although his mother “was the funny person in the house,” she often suffered from depression. He turned to comedy to help cheer her up. He says of stand-up comedians: “Most of us come from unhappy childhoods.”

Fans of Louie Anderson already know about how he grew up in a home with an abusive, alcoholic father and a loving mother, because he’s used his childhood as joke material in his stand-up act for years. In the documentary, Anderson (who’s been doing stand-up comedy since 1978) says that he started out doing self-deprecating fat jokes, but he eventually switched to mostly jokes about his family when he saw that it got a stronger reaction from audiences. He also says that dressing in drag for his Christine Baskets character in the FX comedy series “Baskets” was a tribute to his mother, Ora Zella Anderson.

Anderson believes that there’s a reason why so many stand-up comedians come from dysfunctional, often abusive households: “I think comics are about control. They’re trying to control the whole situation, because we had no control growing up.”

Anderson also echoes what most stand-up comedians said in Comedy Central’s documentary “This Is Stand-Up” about gravitating to stand-up comedy because it was their way of being the center of attention and getting unconditional love from people, even if it’s for the limited time that the comedians are on stage.

Spade is another child of divorce. His father left his mother when he was a child, and he says it had long-lasting effects on him and undying respect for his mother, Judy Todd. “My mom is very positive and upbeat and also very funny and clever.”

Todd is seen visiting the set of her son’s talk show “Lights Out With David Spade” on her 82nd birthday, where the audience shouts “Happy Birthday” to her, and she’s invited on stage with the interview guests. Todd is somewhat “normal,” compared to what other comedians have to say about their mothers. She’s almost downright reserved, since she doesn’t do anything to embarrass her son.

The same can’t be said for what comedians Koy, Lee and Gold have to say about their mothers, whose cringeworthy mothering techniques have been fodder for much of these two comedians’ stand-up comedy acts. Koy, who was raised by his divorced Filipino mother, Josie Harrison, remembers how his outspoken mother would inflict terror on anyone who would dare to criticize him.

Bobby Lee talks about how his Korean immigrant mother, Jeanie Lee, used to call his name to get his attention, just so she could fart in front of him. And when they would go to a shopping mall, she would encourage Lee and his younger brother to play in the shopping-mall fountain, while she would take a nap on the floor in a store. Lee, who is a recovering alcoholic/drug addict, also claims that his mother was fairly good-natured about his multiple trips to rehab, whereas most other mothers would be horrified or ashamed. He describes a moment during a family rehab meeting where his mother got the family to laugh so hard in what was supposed to be a serious gathering, they almost got kicked out of the meeting.

Judy Gold says in the documentary that she had the quintessential nagging, over-protective Jewish mother, Ruth Gold, who liked to leave long, demanding phone messages. Gold’s mother passed away in 2015, but Gold still plays some of her mother’s phone messages in her stand-up comedy act. She also plays some of the phone messages in the documentary and remembers that she did not get much overt affection from her parents when she was growing up.

Gold also says that her parents weren’t the type to hug their children and say, “I love you.” Instead, in her family, people would be rewarded based on whoever did the best to “one-up” the others with a quip. Still, Gold says that toward the end of her mother’s life, she did express her love more openly, and she shares an emotionally touching memory of what happened the last time she spoke with her mother.

One of the issues that the documentary covers is how mothers react when they find out that their children want to be professional comedians. Roy Wood Jr. says it was a very uncomfortable experience for him, since he had dropped out of Florida A&M University after being put on probation for shoplifting. He secretly started doing stand-up comedy in 1999, and when he told his mother, Joyce Dugan Wood, that he wanted to do stand-up comedy full-time, she was very upset.

“She definitely felt my priorities were in the wrong place,” he says. So, in order to please his mother, Roy went back to Florida A&M. And when he graduated, he gave his mother the plaque of the college degree that “I didn’t need” and began pursuing a full-time comedy career. Now that he’s become a successful comedian (including a stint as a correspondent on “The Daily Show”), Wood says of his mother’s approval: “These days, I feel supported.”

When comedian/actress Awkwafina (whose real name is Nora Lum) was 4 years old, her mother died, so when she was growing up, her paternal grandmother was Awkwafina’s main mother figure. While most people in Awkwafina’s family had expectations for her to going into a traditional profession, her paternal grandmother encouraged Awkwafina to pursue her dreams in entertainment.

Although many of these comedians say vulgar things about their families in their stand-up acts, the documentary shows that a lot of stand-up comedians have a soft spot for their mothers and like to hang out with them. Kristen Schaal and her look-alike mother, Pam Schaal, are seen shopping together at a fabric store. Norm Macdonald and his mother, Ferne Macdonald, play Scrabble and golf together. Wood’s mother Joyce accompanies him to a tuxedo fitting.

But not all of these mother-child moments are warm and fuzzy. Some of the comedians, such as Norton and Spade, admit to changing their shows to being less offensive and less raunchy if they know their mothers are going to be in the audience.

Norton says that he’s felt uncomfortable at times when his sex life (which he talks about in his stand-up comedy routine) is a topic of conversation with his mother. Norton remembers how after he did a stand-up show where he talked about his experiences of hiring hookers, he got a call from his mother suggesting that he join a gym to meet new people and improve his dating life. (In the documentary, he even plays the voice mail from 2001 to prove it.)

As for talking about their mothers in their stand-up comedy acts, Koy says that it was hard for him to do at first, but his mother and the rest of his family have gotten used to it. Feinstein says about her mother: “She likes it when I impersonate her. She gets upset if I don’t.”

Fortune Feimster says something similar, in an interview seated next her mother, Ginger Feimster: “She would rather me talk about her and be the center of attention than me not talk about her at all,” Fortune says. “She’s a good sport and she likes the attention.” Ginger Feimster says in response, “That is so true.”

Whether these comedians’ relationships with their mothers have been good or not-so-good, one thing that most people can agree on is a sentiment that Gold expresses in the movie that is a tried and true cliché: “There’s nothing like a mother’s love.” And at the very least, this documentary might inspire people to get in touch with their mothers to express gratitude if their mothering wasn’t a complete disaster.

Comedy Central premiered “Call Your Mother” on May 10, 2020.