If you asked me to name the three best dark cult teen classics of the last 30+ years, I’d start with “Heathers” (1988), then go with “Donnie Darko” (2001) — and I can’t think of a more worthy contender to complete the list than “Spontaneous,” a diamond-sharp gem that plays like a 21st century take on a John Hughes high school romance butting heads with Brian De Palma’s “Carrie.” It’s funny as hell in a drive-in splatter movie kind of way, smart and insightful and respectful in its depiction of modern-day teens, brimming with sly and satiric social commentary — and legitimately profound. I kid you not.
Katherine Langford is sensational as the cynical, wisecracking Mara, who is gliding through her last few months at Covington High School and is not particularly invested in her future when the girl sitting in front of her in class suddenly blows up.
As in, literally explodes. As in, blood and entrails and bones flying everywhere, soaking Mara and her classmates.
This is just the first in a series of random, inexplicable episodes of students blowing up, with no rhyme nor reason. You’re on the sidelines at a football game or you’re refilling your Solo cup at a party, and BLAMMO! Just like that, it’s “Scanners” time. (Only your entire body from head to toe goes splat.) Imagine what it must be like for these good kids from good families, with good grades and good futures, to be suddenly consumed with anxiety and fear it could all fall apart in an instant. Why, it’s almost as if writer-director Brian Duffield, adapting Aaron Starmer’s novel, is delivering metaphors by the bundle about modern-day teen fears of school shootings, escalating racial and social tensions and the spread of disease. (Although there is a quarantine scene in “Spontaneous,” the movie was made before the onset of COVID-19.)
Charlie Plummer continues his string of empathetic performances (“Lean on Pete,” “Words on Bathroom Walls”) as the sensitive and sweet and shy Dylan, who has long harbored a crush on Mara and has resigned himself to never acting on it but finally makes his move because, hey, either or both of them could explode tomorrow. Even though their first date involves Mara getting stoned on shrooms and puking in the bathroom, and their courtship is set against the backdrop of random explosions and classmates’ funerals and the government swooping in to investigate just what the hell is happening and the advent of an experimental antidote known as “The Snooze Button,” the Mara/Dylan romance is right out of the teen romance playbook, from “Pretty in Pink” to “Love, Simon.” They’re awkward and funny and lovely and wonderful together.
Just as authentic is the best-friendship of Mara and Tess (Hayley Law in a terrific performance) which is marked by constant snappy banter and lots of pop culture references but goes much deeper than that. We know they’ll be BFFs — if one or both doesn’t explode into a thousand pieces, that is.
“I need my life to start, even if it’s just a few minutes long,” says Tess, who is planning to skip town right after the prom. (Oddly enough, the school is still holding the prom, even though the attendance rate is going to be WAY down this year.)
“I hope you live forever, like an elf,” says Mara.
“Elves live forever?”
“Unless they’re murdered or die from grief …”
Duffield makes a spectacular directorial debut, filling “Spontaneous” with memorable images and clever touches, e.g., at a funeral for one student, the father scrapes off one of the female figures from the stick figure decal in the rear windshield. There’s an extended homage to “E.T.” (topped by a gravestone punchline later in the film), an amazing tribute to the “Bye Bye Love” finale of “All That Jazz,” a perfect quote from “Unforgiven,” nods to “The Bad News Bears” and “Carrie” and great use of pop music from “And We Danced” by the Hooters to “Even” by Julien Baker to “May I Have This Dance” by Francis and the Lights. Duffield has a true gift for storytelling devices that tap on the fourth wall but never seem gimmicky, as when each victim is seen in happier times, posing for the annual class picture against the obligatory bland and terrible background, or when Dylan tells Mara the story of how he fell in love with her even before she knew he existed, and we see each little moment in flashback.
Why, there’s even room for scenes between Mara and her loving but understandably freaked-out parents, played with grace and humor by Piper Perabo and Rob Huebel.
After all the explosions and the wickedly effective humor and the touching romance, “Spontaneous” is that rare teen comedy/drama that actually becomes more ambitious and thought-provoking in the final 15 minutes, ending on the perfect note. This is a special film.