Spontaneous tries to be too many things at once, and ultimately doesn’t scratch the surface of any of them.
Spontaneous is a lot of things: sci-fi, horror, romance, tragedy, coming-of-age. The one thing it fails to be, however, is compelling; writer-director Brian Duffield is unable to find not only a consistent tone, but enough story to fill his seemingly endless 101-minute running time. Based on the 2016 novel by Aaron Starmer, a disciple of the John Green school of writing, this is all snarky teens endlessly saying clever things while simultaneously attempting to elicit genuine emotions from audience members in the most hackneyed ways possible. Yes, there is indeed a doomed relationship at the heart of all of this, even as Duffield and co. bend over backwards to prove how hip they are through both fourth-wall breaking, casual drug and alcohol use, as well as the shocking violence of its central conceit, which entails suburban high school kids spontaneously combusting for no discernable reason. Despite the fact that David Cronenberg is name-dropped within the first five minutes (see, I told you this film was hip), those looking for the grisly body horror of Scanners would be wise to look elsewhere. The explosions here are simply CGI-pops of red, while the cast is doused with corn syrup for reaction shots. It is all fairly unexciting, save for a manic episode near the film’s mid-point where kids start going off like champagne corks at a New Year’s Eve party.
Our protagonist, Mara (Katherine Langford), is sarcastic and disaffected, barely responding to the horrors around her until she falls in love with Dylan (Charlie Plummer), an earnest classmate inspired by the events around him to take charge of his life and pursue his dreams. The central mystery of Spontaneous is why these events are happening to this specific group of kids, and granted, there are a number of metaphorical ways the material could be read, touching on everything from anxiety to depression to societal pressure on today’s youth. Strangely, Duffield chooses none of these avenues, instead playing the material completely straight and adding nothing in the way of a viewpoint. (Is he leaving it up to audience members to read into it whatever they choose? Or is he just incredibly lazy?) One can see this tract working in its original novel form, but here, it bleeds the proceedings of anything resembling depth. Langford and Plummer actually share some sweet moments together and have a decent amount of chemistry, but these things aren’t nearly enough to save a film that is so lacking in urgency. There are large chunks of this film where absolutely nothing happens, and both the characters and the situation are too underdeveloped to warrant such indulgences. By the time the film finally gets to its parting, bumper-sticker of a message, which basically amounts to, “Shit happens, so live each day like it’s your last,” I also longed for the sweet relief of combustion; at least I would have felt something.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | October 2020.