Another One Bites the Dust: "Spontaneous" a boldly original comedy that blows up the YA formula, literally

Spontaneous (2020)

Like how “Heathers” darkened the game for high school comedies in 1987, “Spontaneous” blows up the YA romance formula, literally. Based on the 2016 novel by Aaron Starmer, the film is boldly original in how it uses the random explosions of teens through spontaneous combustion as a way to work through mortality. Screenwriter Brian Duffield (2020’s “Underwater”) makes his auspicious directorial debut, adapting the novel into a sharp, unexpectedly wise script with no-fucks-given bite and the kind of hyper-verbal teenage characters you end up falling for rather than wanting to throttle. What makes “Spontaneous” so special is how it already begins as a bracing, whip-smart teen comedy and then knows just how to grab you in the throat and heart.

It all started with Katelyn Ogden, the popular girl in Pre-Calc, when she suddenly popped like a zit. Bloody bits went everywhere, and Mara Carlyle (Katherine Langford) sat right in the splash zone. This explosive incident kicks off a series of other teenagers at Covington High School spontaneously combusting without any proven scientific reason. Mara, especially, doesn’t know how to cope—does she grieve or go on with her teenage life?—so she gets high on shrooms. At her favorite coffee spot with best friend Tess (Hayley Law), she ends up officially meeting Dylan (Charlie Plummer), a reserved movie nerd who has had a crush on Maya since he first moved to town. As the teen explosions keep happening and the FBI is brought in to figure out the source of the so-called “Covington Curse,” Mara and Dylan hold on to each other. Can any of them make it to graduation without busting into blood?

“Spontaneous” strikes such a precarious tonal balancing act with snappy pacing that one keeps waiting for everything to be thrown off balance, but rather, all the elements come together just right. The very first scene with a body popping like one of Pennywise the Clown’s balloons full of blood is quite a startlingly absurd introduction. It makes for some acerbic musings and commentary by Mara, and Dylan takes the word right out of our mouths, comparing it to “a Cronenberg movie.” The spontaneous combustion, though, could really be anything—it’s sort of a McGuffin in that way—as life can be unpredictable in that way, snatching any of us up in the blink of an eye.  There comes a time, too, when the explosions happen so rapidly that the blood-soaked sight becomes less comical and as harrowing as watching a classroom of students run from a school shooter. 

Finding herself back in high school and narrating (hey, Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”) and yet possibly being the last one teen standing, Katherine Langford is exceptional as the cool, wickedly sarcastic Mara Carlyle. This protagonist could easily have been unlikable and annoyingly flippant in a lesser performer’s hands, but Langford makes her likable and sympathetic, even in her downward spiral when her cool parents (Piper Perabo, Rob Huebel) are at a loss on how to help their daughter. She and Charlie Plummer (who was just seen and terrific in YA adaptation “Words on Bathroom Walls”), as Dylan, have a genuine chemistry with each other, and their recreation of a scene from “E.T.” when both are in separate beds in a government testing facility is wonderfully funny. Hayley Law (TV’s “Riverdale”) is another standout in the cast as Mara’s best friend Tess, who has made a pact with Mara to grow old together smoking hookah at a beach house, and Law and Langford do, in fact, feel like they have been friends since kindergarten. 

The film—and at some point, Mara—understands that life can be cruel and unfair, and since we aren’t on this damn planet that long, it’s probably best to make the most of it if there is no tomorrow. A beautifully written and acted scene late in the film between Mara and Dylan’s mother (Chelah Horsdal) is particularly heartbreaking and insightful, nailing the pain and confusion of loss when one thinks there is no more reason to live. That might all sound nihilistic and as plain as the nose on your face before it explodes, but Duffield’s script broaches mortality with wisdom and the funniest level of snarky levity from the perspective of a 17-year-old without talking down to its audience. The conversation of death can be a difficult one to process, and yet, “Spontaneous” finds a way. It’s surprising, wild, often hilarious, poignant, and thoughtful.

Grade: A -

Paramount Pictures will release “Spontaneous” (102 min.) in select theaters on October 2, 2020, followed by a video on demand release on October 6, 2020.