horror comedy Spontaneous is exceptionally sweet for a film about spontaneous human combustion. Written and directed by Brian Duffield in his directorial debut, it stars Katherine Langford as Mara, a sardonic senior who is at school one day when her classmate randomly explodes in front of her. What seems like a freak accident soon seems to be something worse as more and more students start popping like pimples, spraying their insides at horrified onlookers.
The only thing that connects these victims is that they are all senior citizens, senior high school students. That fact hasn’t escaped Mara, who has since fallen in love with fellow senior Dylan (Charlie Plummer), a sweet-tempered boy who takes her picture with her amidst the chaos. When she’s not fearing her impending gruesome death, Mara divides her time between Dylan and her best friend Tess (Hayley Law), who just wants to grow old enough to fulfill her childhood dream of retiring to the beach as the “old ballerina.” “. chicks in kimonos” that they idolized as children.
The three characters deal with the so-called “Poppings” in different ways. Mara and Dylan deal with the crude humor, making jokes about the deceased among their usual “your mother” jabs, while Tess takes things more seriously, planning to graduate and move out of town, than the journalists claim to be cursed.
As the death rate rises, the surviving students of Covington High are quarantined while government officials frantically try to find a cure. This footage dates back to the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and while the whole film could be seen as an allegory of the pandemic, the Aaron Starmer novel it’s based on was released in 2014. Still, the themes ring true to an audience that has experienced such an event. Post-quarantine, Mara is more sarcastic than ever, but her usual coping mechanisms begin to falter when tragedy strikes close to home. Having been in close contact with death, she begins to act out and becomes abnormally depressed. In mourning, she turns to alcohol and drugs and pushes away her friends and family. Life for her has become pointless and death has never been more likely.
Despite this depressing turn of events, however, Spontaneous is hardly dark. Fun moments await at every turn – from Mara crashing a Covington Curse protest to her drunken rampage of an FBI agent’s car – and the witty one-liners abound. The most notable quips come from Mara herself and include, “It could be worse, okay, we could be Republicans” and “She’s pretty professional, for ab***h.”
Admittedly, lead actress Katherine Langford is the best part of the movie. Her comedic skills are impressive and perhaps surprising to viewers who have only seen her in the popular teen series. 13 reasons why. Langford exploits Hannah’s teenage angst in Spontaneous, but shows that she can also do silly things. Her co-star Plummer is also a good casting choice as her awkward and endearing boyfriend, Dylan. Plummer plays a similar character in the critically acclaimed TV series looking for alaska and the movie Words on the bathroom wallswho also sees him as a high school student with a host of other issues.
Langford and Plummer have undeniable chemistry in Spontaneous, which is essential to the romantic subplot. Plus, there’s also platonic chemistry between Langford and Law, who plays Mara’s best friend, Tess. When Mara has lost all hope, Tess reminds her of what to live for, as another character supports Mara in her grief. These types of heartwarming interactions form the core of the film. It might be a horror-comedy, with as many gruesome as funny scenes, but it’s also a coming-of-age movie about friendship, love, life and death. .
Spontaneous celebrates life and the little moments worth living, like dancing to Bon Jovi in an old barn or smoking a hookah with your best friend. It applies the motto “you only live once” to a horror storyline and forces viewers to face their mortality in the brightest and funniest way. And it still succeeds as a horror – the film is truly chilling, not least because the mystery behind the Poppings is never disclosed.
Like the Big Bang or the Chasms — two examples Mara uses in her closing monologue — the Poppings apparently happened just because. And even if some viewers weren’t happy with that explanation (or lack thereof), it makes sense that Spontaneous chose to go this root. Not only is it in the name, but those looking for answers are missing the crux of the story: there is none. Life has no meaning. But instead of letting you be scared, Spontaneous tells viewers to let that propel them, in a speech by Mara that contains way too many expletives to repeat.
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