Paramount Pictures’ Spontaneous (2020), directed by Brian Duffield, starts off with a bang. Mara Carlyle (Katherine Langford), a high school senior, is in class when the girl sitting in front of her explodes. Not like a bomb, but “like a balloon,” Mara explains later to her friend Tess McNulty (Hayley Law). Soon, more and more students begin exploding out of nowhere and the phenomenon is dubbed, after the high school where it occurred, “the Covington curse.”
Only a few days after the explosion, a boy named Dylan Hovemeyer (Charlie Plummer) suddenly confesses that he has a crush on Mara, and just as spontaneously as children began exploding, the movie takes a jarring shift from a blend of dark comedy, horror, and mystery into coming-of-age rom-com territory. This isn’t the first shift in genres, as the movie swings between horror movie, science fiction, action, and teen drama in a truly bizarre mashup that doesn’t work with the plot.
Spontaneous’ pacing makes it hard to stay engaged. After two more explosions, Dylan and Mara are swept up by government officials and taken away to a testing facility, where they are quarantined with their classmates. At this point, it seems like the main plot has finally started and we’re going to get some insight into what’s causing kids to blow up. However, in a montage interspersed with exploding children and close-up shots of unspecified medical equipment that look like they were bought off a stock footage website, the entire problem is resolved with a single pill, which each student takes. The movie never even so much as mentions what the pill does or what was causing the explosions.
Then, everything slows back to snail-paced rom-com for a good twenty minutes, until, out of nowhere, kids start exploding again. Then, in the climax of the film, an important character explodes, and the rest of the plot meanders around, following Mara as she inexplicably becomes a raging alcoholic, gives a speech at prom, and then drives away. The film ends with a long, corny monologue about how there are some things in life you can’t control.
The movie occasionally hints at possible clues as to why kids are exploding, like when the government researchers mention it might have “something to do with drugs,” or when Mara reads comments online suggesting that she herself is the cause of the explosions. Mara shrugs off the comments and they are never brought up again. None of these ever lead anywhere. We never find out if the explosions were caused by her or not, but it’s heavily implied that it was just random. The movie set up like a mystery, and then ended with a disappointing lack of plot twists and even more loose ends than when it started.
What really salvaged the movie was the acting. After the first explosion, Mara irreverently recounts what happens to the audience and tells her parents she’s fine, but the subtle ways in which Langford delivers her lines and interacts with other characters show that she’s not. Langford and Plummer also have great chemistry, and the way they interact feels so natural that it covers up the fact that the script itself sounds like it was written by someone who has never heard teenagers talk before.
That being said, a stellar cast can only get a movie so far when the plot itself is a train wreck. While many movies (e.g, The Florida Project, The Dead Don’t Die, Tommy, and more) do pull off the meandering plot and vague ending, the problem with Spontaneous is that it’s the kind of story that needs a plot arc, as opposed to a slice of life film like The Florida Project or a surreal musical like Tommy. Spontaneous’ bizarre flow doesn’t feel intentional. The constant pacing changes are jarring and abrupt, and the lack of a resolution feels like lazy writing rather than a creative choice. Spontaneous starts off strong, but the charm quickly wears off long before the laughable ending.
Spontaneous premiered on October 2, 2020, and is available on demand.