Something unexplainable is happening at Covington High School: the graduating class is exploding. Not with anxiety or hormones, but the literal kind of exploding, where they blow up like a balloon and pop blood-red carnage all over the classmates unlucky enough to be in the blast radius. The seniors are worried less about starting the next chapter of their lives, and more about surviving the one they are currently in.
Brian Duffield’s Spontaneous gives us a taste of what one of those explosions looks like at the very top of the film. As Maya (Katherine Langford) tries to keep her eyes open during homeroom, Katelyn (Mellany Barros), the girl sitting in front of her, suddenly combusts. No screams, no warning signs, just a teenager with her whole life ahead of her is here one minute and, in the blink of an eye, gone in the next. Her life snuffed out by a senseless act of random violence.
As the students stare wide-eyed at the spot that Katelyn once occupied, their shock transforms into screams that drive them out of the classroom and into the parking lot. We see huddles of teens checking-in with each other, calling their parents, and making sure their bestie isn’t the one who died. It’s a scene that should feel familiar because it’s the same one we saw in the parking lots of Columbine or Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the immediate aftermath of their tragic school shootings.
Ultimately, this is what Spontaneous is about: teens trying to process and move forward after being hapless bystanders to a violent tragedy. What Duffield smartly does is distance us from the realities and politics of mass shootings and centers his film on something so outrageous that we can’t help but find it fun, even though it’s alluding to a gravely serious subject. In 2020, it may feel too soon to center a high school teen romance on the shared trauma of a school shooting, but Duffield engages with all of the themes we would expect to explore with such a story, just through the gonzo conceit of teens that explode like watermelons at a Gallagher show. That the film can strike such a delicate balance between being both a romantic horror-comedy for the YA crowd and a brutally honest look at the trauma so many teenagers know all too well in contemporary high school – without losing a shred of its humor and heart – is a testament to just how truly unique this film is.
Spontaneous’s warmth comes out of its love story between the wryly witty Maya, who would rather take shrooms than think about the girl who blew up in front of her, and Dylan (Charlie Plummer), who uses this reminder of his own mortality to gather his courage and ask out Maya, whom he’s been crushing on since moving to their small town. The chemistry between the duo is cutesy but relatable and surely will make the target teenage audience’s heart yearn for their own unrequited high school romances.
A large part of this relatability comes from Duffield’s script, which is based on Aaron Starmer’s YA novel of the same name. Best known for the Satanic Panic horror-comedy The Babysitter as well as the deep-sea monster mash Underwater, Duffield has clearly taken inspiration from John Hughes’ and Diablo Cody’s version of teenage banter, but rather than using stylized dialogue to make his characters feel wise beyond their years, he injects it with honest realism so you can actually picture these words coming out of a teenager’s mouth.
Both Langford and Plummer may have a Manic Pixie Dream Character quality to them, but it doesn’t feel forced or gimmicky. We may feel ourselves cringe as we watch the two lovebirds share lightning-fast quips back and forth, trying to one-up each other with movie quotes and their own self-confident charm, but it’s only because Duffield’s dialogue reminds us of all the things we did in high school that we thought terribly clever. Maya and Dylan have all the joy that comes with the reckless abandon of young love, only magnified ten-fold as their romance blossoms amidst a cloud of chaos and death.
The central relationship is the heart of the film, but Spontaneous is at its best when drawing astute allusions between Duffield’s mysterious explosions and real-world tragedies. Having been produced in the immediate years following the Parkland shooting, it’s clear the intent of the film is to be a commentary on the trauma and anxiety survivors of mass school shootings must face. It’s tragic to watch Maya, Dylan, and the rest of their class have to grow up so fast. They should be concerned about what they’ll wear to prom, and what colleges they want to get into, but as more bodies are eviscerated in front of their eyes, the teens grow increasingly more hopeless that they’ll be alive long enough to even go to college. “We’re never going to be old,” Maya tells her best friend Tess (Hayley Law). “But we’re already really, really old.” she replies.
Arguably, the way the United States has processed the never-ending stream of stories about school shootings is mirrored in the way Maya, Dylan, and Tess cope with the explosions. At first, we are shocked and horrified, trying to make sense of the senseless, but after more and more teenagers are shot in schools – or in Covington High’s case, inexplicably blown up – we, unfortunately, find ourselves growing numb to the tragedies, especially once it becomes clear nothing is being done to stop them from occurring.
Midway through the film, Spontaneous takes a turn into more timely territory that can only be described as unintentional. Doctors and the federal government believe that the Covington High teenagers are exploding because of some virus, or a disease, so they unceremoniously scoop all the teens up and place them in quarantine. They are cut off from their families, monitored around the clock, and given cocktails of experimental drugs all in hopes of finding a cure. The correlations between this and the COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t be plainer, but as the YA novel was written in 2016, and the film shot in 2018, the creators couldn’t have predicted that we’d have such a nuanced understanding of what these characters are going through. Before the pandemic, we could have empathized with Maya, Dylan, and the rest of their classmates’ anxiety over being forced into quarantine, but we have a whole different level of perception now that we’ve been in similar situations for so long ourselves.
Despite the depressing place Spontaneous goes, Duffield leaves us with a message that we should all remember as we remain stuck in a dangerous time. We can’t allow ourselves to get lost in a sea of hopelessness, believing that nothing will ever get better now that everything’s changed. Things may never go back to the way that they were before, but our lives will move on, and we’ll likely come out of it stronger than we were before. We just need to take this moment as a reminder to live each day to the absolute fullest. Hug your family, laugh with our friends, and remember to cherish every day you have. You never know when it might be your last.
Spontaneous is available now on VOD.