Very late in the new film from off-beat, dark horror/comedy writer Brian Duffield, a devilishly handsome man smiles gorgeously to the camera with a magnificent sunset behind him. He turns, laughing, and you think, “I desperately want to date that person.” Well, he is my boyfriend, and he is an extra in this film. My goodness, what a deliciously handsome man he is.
Spontaneous is an outrageous, dark horror-comedy from a writer/director who brought you The Babysitter and Love and Monsters. Based on the novel by Aaron Starmer, the film is a coming-of-age love story about students literally exploding in school and how seniors Mara and Dylan struggle to survive when every moment could be their last. The central relationship between 13 Reasons Why‘s Katherine Langford and the adorably sincere Charlie Plummer grounds the film in realism as students combust around them. Amongst the craziness is Brian Duffield’s assured direction, playing havoc with the students’ lives and orchestrating the proceedings with creative touches, like when each deceased student walks back on screen for their school photo.
The film’s message is clear: live each day like it’s your last, and adulthood is a fucking nightmare waiting to happen. As the students blow up in their seats and blood spills down the backs of their chairs, the film plays out with dark humor that lightens the otherwise horrifying plot. In short, it’s a wild ride.
Spontaneous is bonkers from the get-go. As Mara (Katherine Langford) and best friend Tess (Hayley Law) sit bored in class, the equally checked-out teacher reads unenthusiastically from a book. When she accidentally pushes her pencil off the desk, Mara leans down to collect it, and the student sitting in front explodes. Then the VoiceOver says, “you wouldn’t say she was particularly explosive.” There is no cause of death, the students are frightened beyond belief, and as the school memorializes her, Mara starts texting an anonymous sender who says they have a crush on her. It turns out to be the cute Dylan, who, after the explosion, determined not to waste a minute of life, which included revealing his affection for Mara.
After more students explode, the students are sent into quarantine to determine a course of action. No one can understand why this particular class, so close to graduating, is exploding for no reason at all. FBI agent Rosetti (Yvonne Orji) is stumped, and Mara’s parents, Angela (Piper Perabo) and Charlie (Rob Huebel), are at a loss for the right words to say. But Mara, with a secure head on her shoulders and an indifference to most things, suggests to her classmates that more explosions will keep happening. They’re going to blow up like balloons. The question is not how to stop it but how to survive it.
Spontaneous is fascinating from its first moments and is buoyant in its approach to the tragedy surrounding this small town. In his directorial debut, Duffield seems to have loads of fun with the film’s premise and, along with editor Steve Edwards, expertly weaves the story around each explosion. The story backtracks to inform characters and then causes mayhem in the next moment. There’s an adorable montage sequence of Dylan explaining how he noticed Mara when he arrived as the new student in school. At a school football game, Dylan remembers Mara hissing at him when he was introduced to the class. He rolls through each moment he saw her, and when he looks at Mara, she focuses on the football match. Then another person explodes.
Now, don’t be surprised if your viewing experience is compounded by a feeling of dread about who might die next. It’s an undercurrent to the otherwise romantic proceedings as Mara and Dylan fall in love in the most adorable ways. Like when he reveals how he coped with his father’s death by playing a song, dancing, crying, and rewinding. There’s an immediate openness and connection between the two teens that shows unrestrained trust. They share a first kiss, and then students stampede out of a house after another student explodes. Langford is charismatic, unencumbered, and totally believable, while Plummer is infectiously kind and disarmingly sweet. The movie is worth viewing just for their meet-cute alone.
If Mara’s life is only going to be a few minutes, she needs to get it started. Just because something has never happened before doesn’t mean it won’t. It’s spontaneous for a reason.