“This is a movie that is readily capable of finding an interesting spin to reiterate its messaging.”
by Ken Bakely
The central challenge asked of the characters in Brian Duffield’s Spontaneous is really something to mull over: how does one go on when their peers keep exploding? In a generic suburban community, high school students have been plunged into an extraordinarily unusual kind of terror. Seen through the perspective of senior Mara (Katherine Langford), we discover that area adolescents have begun to spontaneously blow up. There’s no fire, no shrapnel, no warning, no apparent cause. Not even their clothes are disturbed; there is a loud, sickening splashing sound, and then the victim is a crimson puddle of blood and viscera. If you’re their age, you could be next. Stumbling through his horrific wasteland, where all semblance of control is lost and institutions can do little except offer them pat recitations of that perennial classic, “we’re doing everything we can,” Mara begins a tentative relationship with her classmate Dylan (Charlie Plummer). They live in a world of bizarre liminality – looking, preparing, hoping for a future that they are all too aware will not exist for many of them.
As director and screenwriter, Duffield – adapting a novel by Aaron Starmer – guides us through an ambitious story, one that seeks to show its characters trying to navigate the unnavigable. He strives for a balance between fear and absurdity, comedy and earnestness; Spontaneous is less about unlocking the mysteries behind the explosions inasmuch as it is posing this setup as a hypothetical question. What would it feel like to live in that world? Readings of the plot have ascribed any one of a number of possible stand-ins for what that might represent, but on a certain level, there’s none more compelling than the baseline idea that we’re watching these young characters realize – with adequately exaggerated emphasis – that the safe guidances of high school and seeming invincibility of childhood are inadequate preparation for a world that often seems governed by random twists of fate, and is helped little by the people or organizations allegedly supposed to save us. Langford and Plummer’s strong performances are finely tuned – both individually and collectively – towards envisioning their characters’ already-awkward lives thrown further into a real, existential chaos. They feel the emotions of youth with all the intensity that comes with it, with perhaps the highest stake imaginable as an ever-present risk: there’s always something right there, no more distant than the back of your mind, and it comes without warning, without regard for anything you might have ever done to prevent it.
So the question comes again: what do you do? You can’t deny what’s happening. The film posits that nihilism or resignation are as pointless as it proclaims to be. Instead you must try to soldier on. Feelings of pain and fear are very real, but through it, there must be appreciation of what we have and how to make the most of it. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow – but we can live within the knowledge of that, while trying to make things at least a little better for ourselves and others. These might be familiar platitudes, but this movie is a movie that is readily capable of finding an interesting spin to reiterate its messaging. It’s done best when the story sticks to this philosophical journey, accomplishing it with richness, nuance, and wry humor, which yes, includes the perverse and surreal comedy of the explosions themselves. It weakens when it moves into more shoehorned narratives – such as a plotline involving government-imposed abductions for medicinal trials – that seem to steer the movie off its path. Duffield realizes his material at its strongest and most emotionally potent levels when he is able to fully explore the abstract but intensely-felt ideas at its core. Though Spontaneous can’t always live in that space, what it does achieve is still considerably impressive on the whole: it’s confidently imagined, strongly performed, and for the most part, impressively executed.