Review Podcast Rating

Spontaneous (2020)

Pop goes the teenager

Spontaneous is a movie that flits in and out of greatness as quickly as its characters pop like balloons. And I’m not even sure that some of the great parts were even intended to be great for the reasons they are.

The central conceit — that a class of high school seniors start exploding into viscera for no obvious reason, one person at a time, and at random intervals — is a really brilliant and round premise that allows for all sorts of readings. Life shifts and ends abruptly, traumatizing those around the deceased and leaving nothing but a void. There’s no reason or silver lining — just regret. It’s a metaphor for life itself, or perhaps just the end of innocence. But it’s also (very consciously) evoking school shooting emotions and imagery.

Also, it’s a terrific parable about COVID, which is pretty funny because it was written and produced before COVID.

So much of the story is an incisive commentary on every painful moment of the coronavirus lockdown: The characters grapple with their life unfairly upended for some “disease” they can’t control, but might kill them. They endure long bouts of nothingness punctuated by pangs of terror and loss. Every moment is undercut by a fear of death by something they cannot see or predict. A whole year of their life is yanked away. Their “condition” is treated by physical separation. They endure a daunting rhythm of things getting worse before they get better before they get worse again, like clockwork. The government meddles in everyday life with mandates and curfews; and the medicine is mistrusted by the masses…

It’s as if Spontaneous was ripped from headlines that would be written a year or two after this movie was made in 2018-19.

Underneath all that bloody horror and symbolic residue is a movie with more ups than downs. The thriller portions are really bracing, particularly an apocalyptic scene about two thirds into the movie that is so intense and brilliantly constructed I had to pause my stream and get a glass of water. (It’s honestly my favorite thing I’ve seen in any movie from 2020.)

Much of the teen drama on top of that is kind of vanilla and hackneyed, unfortunately. Mara (Katherine Langford) feels a bit too dour as a protagonist, too ironically detached; Dylan (Charlie Plummer) unevenly sketched and inconsistent. Even if they’re imperfect protagonists, the actors have palpable romantic chemistry which elevates their scenes together.

There is one X-factor on all of this generic teen stuff for Spontaneous, which is the omnipresent threat that any scene could be disrupted by an unexpected flesh explosion, making some scenes that are romance on the surface play more like slow-motion suspense shorts. Will each kiss be their last?

While I really liked a lot of the movie, I ultimately felt like it could and should have done a lot more to poke at the edges of the psychological terror it created rather than spend its last half hour morphing into a “live life to the fullest” parable. Given how well the premise is set up and depicted, I wanted to see a broader spectrum of its impact on the teens, the paranoia of instant death further explored, the trauma of losing the people you love given more fallout than “it made her depressed”.

Spontaneous is definitely worth a watch. It’s timely and poignant, occasionally astonishing… but falls just short of being the instant classic it could have been.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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