★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
The directorial debut of super-scribe Brian Duffield is a splatterific horror-adjacent rom/com that brings the feels along with exploding teens.
Written/directed by Brian Duffield
As a writer, Brian Duffield has quickly become a force to be reckoned with. At the disturbingly-not-old age of 35 he’s already got a string of impressive credits:
- The Divergent Series: Insurgent (2015), co-writer.
- Netflix’s The Babysitter (2017), writer.
- Underwater (2020), original story + co-writer.
- Love and Monsters (2020), original story + co-writer.
With Spontaneous (2020), Duffield takes a crack at directing for the very first time. As a first effort, this puts him squarely on the radar as someone we should be keeping an eye on.
Spontaneous is based on Aaron Starmer’s book of the same name and takes place in a regular American high school in a regular American small town. Mara [Katherine Langford; Knives Out (2019)] and the rest of her class are just trying to get through another day of pre-calc on their way to finishing up their senior year when their classmate, Katelyn Ogden, explodes.
Maybe “explodes” is the wrong word. There’s no fire and nobody dies (other than Katelyn Ogden). She “pops”. Like an over-pressurized human-sized water balloon. Full of blood. All over math class. Splat.
While that would be traumatizing enough, Katelyn is only the first of Mara’s classmates to spontaneously burst. As the months wear on, members of the senior class continue to randomly explode. Investigations are started and the community grieves, living in fear.
To its credit, Spontaneous never tries to explain why this is happening to the students. Their lives become a mélange of investigators, grief counselors, prom dates, and college applications.
With the randomness of the deaths and the apparent inability of the Powers That Be to find a solution, it’s hard not to make a connection to the epidemic of school shootings in the United States. The filmmakers even throw in a useless Washington bureaucrat complete with Power Point presentation who comes bearing “thoughts and prayers”.
However, a similar parallel could be drawn to the more literal COVID-19 epidemic we’re all still dealing with, even though Spontaneous the book was published in 2016. The story deals with hopelessness in the face of random tragedy, resiliency, grief, and survival. Duffield was able to expertly capture all of it in his film adaptation making Spontaneous a movie that’s emotionally accessible to anyone.
Casting Katherine Langford as darkly humorous Mara was an inspired choice. As was choosing Charlie Plummer [The Clovehitch Killer (2018)] to play opposite her in the role of Mara’s love interest, Dylan. The chemistry between the two actors is as undeniable as it is adorable and Plummer’s easy going acting style fits perfectly with Langford’s more front-and-center portrayal.
The same casting wizardry was in play when they conjured up Hayley Law [TV’s Altered Carbon (2018-2020)] as Mara’s BFF, Tess. The two women make it easy to believe they have a deep and somewhat complicated friendship that now faces the tests of high school and whatever comes after.
As usual for one of Brian Duffield’s scripts, the dialog is tight and sounds perfectly natural coming out of people’s mouths. Bouncing from hilarity to panic to grief (much like high school), Spontaneous runs the gamut of emotions and does so with ease. The tonal shift toward the end of the film brings home the weight of what the characters have gone through.
That shift in tone coincides with a shift in the focus of the movie and is why I’m calling Spontaneous “horror-adjacent” as opposed to straight up horror, but it doesn’t diminish what came before. This is still a solid directorial debut and, hopefully, a good sign of things to come from Mr. Duffield.
Spontaneous is available for streaming from Hulu, Amazon, and Apple TV.
Review by Robert Zilbauer.