Written and directed by Brian Duffield, from a young adult novel by Aaron Starmer, Spontaneous is a sweary, bloody teenage romantic comedy about cherishing life in the face of exploding classmates. Fun, but a muddle.
The nutshell premise of Spontaneous is easy to like: a story about a group of teenagers who are losing friends due to them blowing up, combined with a high-school love story. Really! And that is about all I need to say to give you the plot. The teenagers are fairly easy to like too, not perfect or uber-cool, but flawed and slightly quirky (though not so quirky as to be Juno-pretentious). The film is fun, glossy, deliberately edgy, and woven through with plenty of equally deliberate message.
So what’s the catch?
I’ve got no problem with the cast or the characters, so let’s start with those. Spontaneous is told from the point of view of Mara (Katherine Langford), who is daydreaming in class when a girl at a neighboring desk explodes. It is essentially her (granted, unusual) story, with this curse/virus/phenomenon triggering both existential angst and a new relationship. Langford plays Mara a little more extravert than her Leah in Love, Simon, and with a wider range of reactions to her crises; but just as open-minded, as evidenced in the way she accepts cheeky come-ons and then dates from a slightly geeky guy she’d barely acknowledged before. This is Dylan (Charlie Plummer, All the Money in the World), who gives her something new to smile about during this bizarre time. Dylan reminded me very much of Thomas Mann’s character from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, with his don’t-care-about-fitting-in attitude and the way he unconsciously provided both Mara and the audience with unexpected outlooks.
There have been plenty of films about troubled or unwell teenagers developing new mentalities because of a relationship or friendship, such as Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, The Fault in Our Stars, etc. Spontaneous looks, on the surface, like one of those films (or a romantic comedy equivalent), with a crisis the fledgling couple face together, grief, lessons to be learned about coping and growing, etc. Underneath that worthy and familiar surface, Spontaneous surely feels to me like a horror story, heavily disguised as a coming-of-age film. There is lots of blood, paranoia, and yeah, multiple teenagers going boom.
This blend of genres sometimes works, and sometimes feels uncomfortable, but it definitely allows for plenty of both laughs and surprises. Unfortunately, the overall plot still turns out to be somewhat predictable, especially if you’ve seen a few “worthy” teen movies. The continually changing tone of the film, although it kind of makes sense to the hybrid story, is also disorienting: there is humor (both light and dark), sincere romance, exaggerated despair, and rebel-teen anger. And grief, naturally; but less naturally a sudden sense of hope that just washes all that away.
Despite the ups and downs of the Spontaneous mood, it’s a pacy and surprisingly fun film. It’s filled with such a lot (of dialogue, people, blood, and meandering story) that I was surprised to find less than a hundred minutes had gone by. The production is lovely, with costumes and sets that are a neat marriage of hip and realistic, and the special effects not too in-your-face. Perfect for a teen film… yet due to the “teen drug and alcohol use, language and bloody images throughout” (an immense amount of swearing), Spontaneous has been granted an R rating in the USA, meaning many teenagers will not be entitled to see it on the big screen. Like those other teen dramas I mentioned earlier, Spontaneous was based on a popular young adult novel, this one by Aaron Starmer. The book was marketed to those aged fourteen plus, and it’s a shame to think that its fans are not part of the film’s audience.
The screenplay was adapted from the novel by Brian Duffield, who has written some well-received and entertaining films, most notably The Babysitter. This is the first film he has directed, which he does with energy and pace, despite the curious blend of tones. Overall though, despite the blood and teenage chaos, Spontaneous is a bit of a mess: it doesn’t seem to know its audience, what style to apply, or what genre to claim. Even the ending is inconclusive. There are messages one is supposed to take away about cherishing life and the people around you, but I’m not sure teenagers want to hear that, and I certainly felt that Mara arrived at those a bit too easily for the sentiments to be convincing.
SPONTANEOUS will be available on Premium Video-On-Demand and Digital beginning October 6.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.