Yesterday when I reviewed LOVE AND MONSTERS I mentioned how much I enjoy the work of screenwriter Brian Duffield (JANE GOT A GUN, THE BABYSITTER, UNDERWATER), but I strategically avoided mentioning his directorial debut that came out just two weeks before LOVE AND MONSTERS, because I wanted to save that topic for today. SPONTANEOUS (2020) is another one that combines young romance and coming-of-age with a genre premise, and has some accidental pandemic parallels. It’s more of a teen movie than a sci-fi one, but it’s R-rated for “bloody images throughout.” Adapted from a 2016 book by Aaron Starmer, it follows its witty, acerbic protagonist Mara (Katherine Langford, KNIVES OUT) as she navigates a senior year punctuated by dozens of her classmates randomly exploding.

“What? Like a bomb?” asks her best friend Tess (Hayley Law, Riverdale) after the first one, Katelyn Ogden.

“No. Like… a balloon?”

It happens in Mara’s third period pre-calculus. She’s just leaned down to pick up a pencil she dropped, so she misses seeing it and only gets blood on her Converse while everyone behind her gets drenched. Her class has to stay into the night at the police station, where they’re showered and given grey sweat suits, interrogated, and made to wait around in a room together until the authorities are confident it was a one time thing. But it wasn’t. People continue to explode periodically, specifically people at their school, specifically seniors. They call it “The Covington Curse.” Mara calls it “the popping.”

Katelyn’s vivid illustration of mortality inspires Mara’s classmate Dylan (Charlie Plummer, MOONFALL) to confess his two year crush on her. He’s a kinda shy, upbeat sweetheart but surprises Mara by being able to hang with her dark sense of humor.

“How you guys doing?” he asks Mara and Tess at their favorite diner after Katelyn’s service.

“All right,” says Mara. “Definitely the best memorial service I’ve ever been to. Best funeral, too.”

“Second best for me,” Dylan says. “My dad’s was better.”

“Well holy shit, Dylan.”

“It’s okay. The Ogdens can just try harder next time.”

They agree he’s “bombing this banter,” but I think in fact he has her curiosity. It helps that she’s having her only ever shroom experience and he holds her hair back for her while she pukes in the ladies’ restroom.

They start spending their time together, making each other laugh, telling each other embarrassing secrets, making out, flirting through plastic while E.T.-style-quarantined together, preparing elaborate romantic gestures, facing these sudden bloody deaths sometimes together, sometimes apart, and then worrying that it’s each other. It’s a very effective teen romance and one with an underlying dread, because a happy ending seems unlikely. These kids endure trauma after trauma and worry every day that they or their best friend or boyfriend or girlfriend could be next. They’re at the age when you think most about the future, and they’re not confident they’ll have one.

I think the story is relatable to anyone, but the primary metaphor is specific to American teens of the last decade or two, who have grown up with the spectre of gun massacres and the fact of adults’ absolute inability/refusal to do the one extremely fucking obvious thing to stop them from happening so often. It could be about any seemingly inevitable doom, including climate change, but there’s too much school shooting imagery (not to mention an on-the-nose “thoughts and prayers” line) to avoid that one. For those who are big on the democratization of mass murder, you may still find something to like about the movie’s cynical portrayal of the government and pharmaceutical companies handling a deadly disease through quarantines, pills and advertising (though, please note, they do figure out how to make it stop).

It’s also really funny, mostly because the characters are funny, and joking their way through this. And I love all the clever little details about how this event changes things. Like, almost no one figures out that the prom dress Mara wears for Halloween is supposed to be Carrie White, because she knows it would be in poor taste to cover it with blood. “I know, Katelyn fucked it up,” she accidentally blurts out. Dylan has a good attitude, though, using the popping as a reason to live it up. Afraid he might not make it to college, he goes to spend his savings on a car, and instead buys a used milk truck because “I saw it and I laughed and I thought other people would laugh too.”

The teen movie that spoke to me most growing up was HEATHERS. This is one of the few movies that made me think of HEATHERS without seeming like it’s necessarily trying to be like it at all. It doesn’t copy any of the obvious aspects HEATHERS-wannabes used to (made up slang, fanciful cliques, black comedy murder plots). The connection is that it’s about a burgeoning romance between cynical, morbid smart kids, and that they’re able to have teenage fun, mischief and mistakes (including drugs, alcohol and sex) without the movie judging them for it or turning it into a cautionary tale.

I suppose there’s a more direct similarity in their funny scenes about uncomfortably corny memorials for young lives snuffed out too soon. But there’s a major difference: in HEATHERS, J.D. stages two football players’ deaths to look like a lover’s suicide pact, under the theory that being remembered as gay would be the ultimate insult to a homophobic jock; in SPONTANEOUS a similarly thick football player says at his teammate’s memorial assembly, “When my bro came out to us in the sixth grade, we loved him. Because he was our best bro. And we’re progressive like that.”

In general, the kids in SPONTANEOUS get along, as opposed to the cruelty, bullying and backstabbing that I found to be so accurate in HEATHERS. I always saw that as the biggest dividing line between HEATHERS and PUMP UP THE VOLUME: I enjoyed the latter but felt it was bullshit that all the kids were on the same side against the adults (and even listened to the same music!). I wonder if any young people now feel that way about SPONTANEOUS, or whether things have simply changed? I truly don’t know.

For me, at this age, it’s nice to see. Whether or not it’s true to life, not having any villains to point to makes the story interesting. This one knows that you don’t even need to have terrible or clueless parents to feel disaffected at that age. Mara’s mom (Piper Perabo, WHITEBOYZ, ANGEL HAS FALLEN) and dad (Rob Huebel, THE OTHER GUYS) are actually extremely caring, non-judgmental, and understanding parents at all times. They’re supportive and show her affection but if there’s a possibility of them making some inspiring speech that would get through to her, they don’t really know how to do that.

I’m a sucker for stories where characters try to be tough and stoic and keep their emotions inside, when it would be better for everyone involved if they could express them. I’ve always seen it as a behavior mostly taught to men, but the current season of Reservation Dogs has done a really good job of showing it as a generational thing, with the kids having to teach the elders how to open up about their feelings. Maybe the most famous and purest cinematic depiction of this theme, at least in the kind of movies I tend to watch, is in FIRST BLOOD. Rambo goes to war with an entire town over his mistreatment by the sheriff, but when he sees Colonel Trautman at the end he starts blubbering about losing his friends in Vietnam and lets it all pour out.

This may sound silly but one of the things I really loved about SPONTANEOUS is that it kinda has a version of that FIRST BLOOD arc. But Mara’s method of bottling up her emotions isn’t to act tought, it’s to joke and keep an ironic distance from everything up to and including seeing peers explode right in front of her. Or right onto her. And the movie puts you in her shoes by setting you up to laugh at grim things like a grieving father sadly peeling the daughter from his stick figure family car window decals after the funeral. It’s so sad but also so funny, and easier to deal with if you choose the path of laughing at it.

Early in the movie Tess asks Mara, “Have you cried yet?”

She just shakes her head. “Have you?”

“I cry all the time.”

Mara’s not like that, but when she finally does break down late in the movie she admits how much it all hurts, and it changes everything.

So it’s a sweet, funny movie that’s also harrowing and heartbreaking, a love story interrupted by screaming, hiding under desks, running covered in blood, facing serious loss, becoming self destructive. It’s much darker than LOVE AND MONSTERS, much harsher about pain and grief and hopelessness, about how bad things can get (even without civilization collapsing). Yet it comes to a similar conclusion. You have to face that at least for now this is life and it’s not fair and you have to find happiness anyway. Appreciate your loved ones while you’re together, make friendships while you can, don’t blame yourself, do what you need to to have fun and be yourself and be happy in the moment. As Mara says, “Bad shit is gonna happen. It’s inevitable,” but “I’m gonna be amazing, despite all of life’s shit” and “I’m gonna live the life I want to have right now.”

It’s a beautiful movie. I’m not even gonna be cute and say “it’s a beautiful movie about spontaneous combustion.” It’s just a beautiful movie.

p.s. Duffield’s second movie as a director, an alien invasion movie called NO ONE WILL SAVE YOU, hits Hulu tomorrow, and I can’t wait to watch it.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 21st, 2023 at 12:11 pm and is filed under Reviews, Comedy/Laffs, Romance, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Responses to “Spontaneous”

  1. This is easily one of my favorite movies of the last five years. Funny and gooey and heartbreaking.

  2. Today I learned that I’m a fan of a guy named Brian Duffield, who I didn’t know wrote a bunch of movies I liked, including this one, which I thought was romantic as fuck.

  3. I was hoping you’d review this next! Like Brent, this is one of my favorite films of recent years. I normally bounce hard off anything resembling a coming-of-age tale, but this one I really dug. It’s legitimately funny, albeit very bleak. It has some wild tonal shifts, but every big swing hits the ball just right. And it’s all anchored by a great performance from Katherine Langford.

    Teenagers definitely have a tendency for acidic gallows humor– I know because I was in high school during 9/11. And the existential dread of American existence has only gotten worse. We still try to maintain ironic detachment, but we’re expected to go to school or work despite a deadly virus, a collapsing climate, creeping (and galloping) fascism, and more mass shootings than days in the year. But I like a movie that captures that feeling of optimistic nihilism– accepting that everything sucks and we’re all doomed and still trying to live, to create our own meaning within that world.

    As to your point about the kids all getting along– I went to a small school, and it’s not like I didn’t experience strife and bullying. But I also remember by senior year of high school we all kinda gave up on conflict and got along with each other. Maybe it was maturation. I don’t know if this is a universal experience.

  4. Afraid he might not make it to college, he goes to spend his savings on a car, and instead buys a used milk truck because “I saw it and I laughed and I thought other people would laugh too.”

    Maybe this works really well in context, I’ve haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t say. But reading it cold, it’s such a ‘marvel screenwriter’ quip, it makes really not want to. So you bought a vehicle meant for a business, so it costs five times the amount to insure, uses about five times the amount of gas, destroys the environment five times quicker, is impossible to park, etc. to make people laugh? (I didn’t even mention taking it off the market so that someone who delivers perishables can’t use it…)

    Hows about taking that needless expense and housing and homeless person? I’m sure that would put a real big smile on their face. Maybe even give a chuckle or two. Sure, not as cute, but…

  5. He’s pretty sure he’s gonna die any day now. Cut the kid some slack.

  6. He’s pretty sure he’s gonna die any day now. Cut the kid some slack.

    I mean, I understand that part.

    I’ve heard it costs about 60k to have an AI custom-built for your purposes, which makes me certain the marvel production office currently houses a “Cutetron 2000” spitting out dialog removed from all logic and normal human behavior just like the above, morning, noon, and night.

    “Wow! Not only will the line get a laugh. But then, ROM the Space Knight has to spend the rest of the movie driving a milk truck! It’s like five laughs for one line! Talk about efficiency! This Cutetron was the best investment we’ve made yet! Paddy Chayefsky my ass. You ever hear what that guy charged?? And he never wrote anything half this good…”

  7. The line and the movie are absolutely nothing like you’re describing, which are both charming and well written and absolutely fit the character in question. I have no idea what any of it has to do with Marvel movies, quite frankly. I’d see the movie if i were you. It’s a lot better than the one you made up in your head.

  8. When I was in high school me and my friends would sometimes go to this street where dudes went on Friday nights to “cruise” (drive slowly with their bass up loud to try to impress girls), and we would try to look very serious while blasting Sesame Street tapes. Once we got pulled over because my brother was in the back seat playing saxophone. I believe Dylan wants to drive around in a milk truck with this same stupid spirit, but his also works as a symbol within the story. And if it is really gonna bother you to consider the possible insurance rates of the vehicles in the movie, I assure you that this character would not have considered such a thing and if he did he wouldn’t care since he expects to explode before a bill would be due.

  9. The line and the movie are absolutely nothing like you’re describing

    I’m pretty sure I expounded upon that possibility
    (it may even be the first thing I said)

  10. Damn…..fun police sure showed up quick.

  11. I didn’t realize he wrote all of this stuff…a lot of the movies I’ve seen of his, including this one, are all fun enough but never seem t quite cross the finish line for me. They’re okay, but I forget about it a few days later, they don’t really stick. I am looking forward to his alien movie though, it looks great.

  12. Dammit, I’m sure I had this thing sitting on my DVR for a year or two before I deleted it unseen in a case of “I don’t even like to watch movies anymore so why bother” and now I hate myself.

    Also damn, “Marvel” or “MCU” is slowly taking over as the #1 internet buzzword for “We apply it to everything we don’t like in movies”, kicking “CGI” of its spot, isn’t it?
    Not a diss directly aimed at you, jojo, but over the last few days I heard people complain about the “MCU style storytelling” in the last few 007 movies (because they dared to pick up a few lose threads from the previous movies instead of being all standalone) or how they try to turn SPONGEBOB into some kind of MCU thing because they are now making spin-off shows or how DUNE’s Duncan Idaho was such a Marvel name or whatever, so it’s obviously getting already tiresome

  13. I think the MCU critique of modern screenwriting is interesting because the Marvel people are attempting something new, but with a tired, trope-y attitude. I’m referring to the constant glibness of those movies.

    In something like Die Hard, awful things are happening to these characters, and those awful things contribute to the suspense of the film. But John McClane’s glibness can be seen as a defensive coping mechanism, something to deflect the psychologically damaging exposure to all these awful events.

    The Marvel world, however, has been existing in real time since 2008. That world has experienced so many things – within that continuity, someone like Stephen Strange loved through so much global chaos from ’08-’16 as a normal person even before he became a superhero. The longer that world goes on, the more we become aware of what’s happening in it, what life is like on a day to day basis. But very few moments in the larger Marvel saga wrestle with that. So they’re still doing movies in 2023, after a global blip no less, where characters keep reacting glibly to these traumatic, violent occurrences. It’s an inhuman, unfeeling attitude, and it’s permeated a lot of modern movies where something awful just has to be punctuated or deflated with a quip, as if that’s all we know as people.

    I don’t know if Spontaneous is guilty of this (it sounds great, good review) but I can relate to the overall exhaustion over violent movies featuring characters with a nonstop glib attitude towards death and destruction. Maybe someone can argue that’s what the world has become. Sure, but let’s try to do better, if not in real life than at least in the movies.

  14. Eh, we already had the mopey movies and TV shows after 9/11. I take fantasy escapism that is exactly that over another BATMAN AND THE PATRIOT ACT VS OSAMA BIN JOKER or BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: SHAKYCAM MUMBLECORE ABOUT TERRORISM AND RELIGION THIS IS DEEP Y’ALL.

    Besides: As a clinical depressed person who even in the shittiest situation keeps cracking jokes, I find this behaviour way more relatable.

  15. Motherfuckers gonna fuck around and recreate the Snyderverse.

  16. I think there are two arguments being made here.

    1. Stylized dialogue. Before the MCU, people complained about “Whedon-esque” dialogue. But I love snappy patter, dry wit, wordplay, weird slang, turns of phrase, whimsy, etc. So I’m a fan.

    2. Verisimilitude. It’s not that everything needs to be “realistic.” It’s that the characters in the story need to treat what is happening, no matter how fantastical, as if it is real. And since so much of the setting and look of a film is now done in post-production, I think that leads to a sort of disconnect or uncanny valley for some members of the audience. Plus Marvel keeps writing itself into weird corners– like how half the population of the Earth died and came back to life five years later, and then immediately gets over it. Then again, humans will begin to treat anything as normal after a certain point, like the proverbial frog in the boiling water.

    I think SPONTANEOUS succeeds at both of the above, by the way.

  17. (Captain obvious says) All movie dialog is stylized. No one speaks like people do in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (though I often wish I did) or like a Sorkin character. Or anyone in HEATHERS. As someone implied above, when people go for realism we end up with mumblecore.

    I don’t care for a lot of things about some marvel movies, and their dialog writing definitely overuses a tone which, yeah, sounds a lot like Wheddon. But it can, and does work!
    Maybe the problem is that shoehorning; People are sick of it, or rather, sick of it being shoehorned and not sounding organic to the material. Which this movie seems innocent of, I think (without having seen the movie) it was a very funny, sweet line.

  18. Plus, the fact that the MCU makes a gazillion dollars automatically make imagination-deficit writers go…let’s sprinkle some of that shit in our movies and it’ll do gangbuster business. So, never mind that we’re not sure the movie will be a success, to say nothing of it being greenlit for a sequel, let’s do an end credits scene teasing of one anyway. Never mind that a glib, throwaway joke completely doesn’t work within the context of a scene, let’s insert one, cause it worked for a Marvel movie right? So, while I don’t quite agree in trotting out the MCU or DCU as whipping boys for every glib, post modern, snarky meta humor we find in movies, you can’t deny their influence has permeated a lot of modern writing. Because, nothing triggers a Herd Mentality like success.

    I used to think it was THE LAST JEDI that soured me on the Sequel Trilogy, now I realize it’s the 1st 20 mins of THE FORCE AWAKENS, when Poe Dameron makes a joke about how he can’t understand Kylo Ren, because of the helmet. Hardy Har…except Rick Moranis made that joke about how hard it is to breathe with Vader’s helmet in SPACEBALLS..37 fucking years ago! If this is the level of humor you’re operating at, might as well rope in Barf The Mog and Pizza The Hutt to complete the ensemble.

    I’ve completely soured on shallow, insincere, let’s not take any of this seriously, frat-boy humor that seems de rigueur for most action/ adventure movies these days. So, when I do see films that complete their run-time without a single snarky self-referential joke, it looks like a fucking revelation. You mean, I as the VIEWER can decide how serious or ridiculous your universe is…but YOU as a CHARACTER in said universe actually take it seriously? Mind. Blown!

    And everything Glaive Robber said and Bill Reed’s Point 2.

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