The COVID-19 pandemic has had a monumental impact on our lives for over six months now, and health experts have indicated that there might still be a long way to go before the world is able to entirely return back to normal. That fact, combined with the ever-evolving nature of the pandemic itself, has caused many to look at the world -- and particularly the media they consume within it -- in a different way. Some projects have had an adverse relationship with being released during the pandemic, whether it's theatrical blockbusters that are unable to draw in larger audiences, or newer projects that feel like a half-hearted attempt at capturing the nature of our current reality. Enter Spontaneous, a teen rom-com that could have easily skated by on its spunky exterior, off-the-wall premise, and cast of familiar faces, but it morphs into something so much more. The film is well-executed, unbelievably earnest, and surprisingly cathartic, culminating in the movie experience that 2020 didn't know it needed.
Spontaneous follows Mara (Katherine Langford) and Dylan (Charlie Plummer), two high school seniors whose lives are changed forever after one of their classmates literally explodes into smithereens at school. As Covington High begins to be hit with even more of these inexplicable spontaneous combustions, the students begin to reconcile with the fact that each day could be their last. For Mara and Dylan, this leads to a whirlwind romance -- and learning some lessons about love, identity, and living life to the fullest along the way.
Based on the young adult novel by Aaron Starmer, Spontaneous embraces its ridiculous concept essentially from the get-go, and proceeds to use it as a backdrop for some incredibly significant character moments. The idea of having a teen-aged meet-cute in the worst possible circumstances is certainly not new in young adult literature, but the presentation of Mara and Dylan's relationship feels monumentally different from the saccharine tragedies of The Fault in Our Stars or Five Feet Apart. There isn't a sense that the two of them are only together because they share an unprecedented circumstance, but rather that this circumstance helped them realize what was right there all along. They also have a rapport that feels like real-life couples as opposed to a series of tropes -- they have a softness and an earnestness towards each other, but they also treat each other as equals, and encourage each other's stupid jokes. Their first conversation, for example, which involves Dylan sending pictures of Richard Nixon, is almost too charming for words. The easiness of their relationship only makes the plot of the film -- and the threat that either of them could die by spontaneous combustion -- all the more effective.
When it comes to the combustions themselves, the film toes the perfect line between being respectful and being truly outrageous, a dichotomy that could have easily fallen flat in the hands of someone other than writer-director Brian Duffield. There is definitely no shortage of fake blood and jarring situations in the film, but they're able to be both harrowing and almost absurd. In a normal world, Spontaneous' take on its satire would have worked effectively in a heightened or allegorical sense, but nearly every scene in the film unintentionally takes on a more profound meaning amid the ongoing pandemic.
The film's use of drugs and alcohol feel reminiscent of a numbness that many adults have been feeling in recent months, and a sequence involving the government organization that is investigating the explosions will feel all-too-familiar to some. And with teenagers all over the country being forced to miss out on major milestones because of the pandemic -- and the question of whether or not it's safe for those teenagers to return to school still being debated to this day -- lines of dialogue like "I cry all the time" and "Maybe I've been spending my entire life preparing for a year that may never come for me" hit very differently than they would have in a pre-pandemic world. That isn't to say that the movie is impossible to separate from the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, as its humor and its sci-fi premise are so smartly executed that it is easy for viewers to get lost in it for stretches of time. But that further proves the effectiveness of its satire; it conveys the messiness of grief, mortality, and feeling like your life is hanging in the balance due to some invisible force, all of which are emotions and sentiments that have always been part of humanity, albeit never on as prominent of a scale.
While Mara and Dylan's love story is at the center of Spontaneous, it really is Langford's movie, and it is arguably one of the best showcases of her acting abilities yet, allowing her to play an even more complex young protagonist than on 13 Reasons Why or Netflix's recent fantasy series Cursed. With perfectly coifed curly hair and a jean jacket filled with ironic patches, Mara initially seems like the next evolution of the manic pixie dream girl trope, but she soon proves to be the antithesis of one. Langford's take on Mara is messy, acerbic, and incredibly relatable, and the kind of protagonist that the young-adult world could always use more of. Plummer, who has also become a familiar face in the teen world thanks to Hulu's Looking for Alaska series, is a perfectly charming complement to Langford. Riverdale alum Hayley Law also shines as Mara's best friend, and Rob Huebel and Piper Perabo subvert tropes left and right as Mara's parents. On a technical level, Spontaneous is just as whip-smart and effective as its script is, with the cinematography and editing making its run time feel both incredibly lush and incredibly fast-paced.
Narratively, emotionally, and aesthetically, Spontaneous is the perfect teen rom-com for our current moment. The film's unpredictable premise sets itself apart in multiple ways -- not only from the teen movie genre as a whole, but from the crop of current and upcoming films that feel relevant to our current moment. It's a genuine joy to watch through and through -- the kind of movie that will continue to pull on your heartstrings even after you watch it, but also leave you with a genuine sense of optimism. It could, and should, be one of the best cinematic gems of this unpredictable year.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Spontaneous will be released in select theaters on Friday, October 2nd, and will be available on Video on Demand on Tuesday, October 6th.