★★★ / ★★★★
For a movie in which the plot revolves around high school seniors who may explode out of the blue, “Spontaneous,” based on the novel of the same name by Aaron Starmer, is surprisingly human, a dark comedy that consistently strives to capture the unpredictability and drama of being on the cusp of adulthood. This could have been a one-note joke with ample guts and gore. But writer-director Brian Duffield, in his debut film, elevates the material by being willing to observe and listen to his teenage subjects, specifically their fears of death and not getting a chance to live the life they’ve imagined for themselves.
Spontaneous human combustion can be a hilarious visual gag. The idea is so ludicrous, you can’t help but laugh once it is actually executed. The movie opens with this expectation in mind, and it delivers. It leads viewers to believe that this will be the tone of the picture: silly, tongue-in-cheek, visually creative, shocking at times, but ultimately harmless. And so it is a terrific surprise when eventually it underscores the horror of human bodies suddenly exploding. It’s funny during the opening scene because we have not gotten to know any of the teenagers yet. It is another thing entirely when someone whom we learn to care about dies suddenly.
One of the sequences is shot as though there is a school shooting. We are led to believe it is just another day of boring lectures. Then student explosions commence left and right. Panic bleeds from the classroom and into the halls. There is deafening screaming and the handheld camera is right in the middle of a stampede. Students trip and fall, many covered in their peers’ blood. Exterior doors cannot be opened from the inside. Panic escalates further.
What triggers these students to explode? (This is later referred to as The Covington Curse, named after the high school.) We note for patterns: gender, skin color, sexual preference, location, who is around whom, mental and emotional state before combustion. Surely there must be an explanation. I will not reveal whether there is or isn’t. But what I appreciated is that it almost doesn’t matter. We follow Mara (Katherine Langford), her best friend Tess (Hayley Law), and the romantic interest Dylan (Charlie Plummer) just trying to make it through another day. We learn about their pasts, what they think of the insanity unfolding all around them, their goals for the future. Rumor has it that The Covington Curse should be lifted upon graduation.
The movie is occasionally political. The phrase “thoughts and prayers” is uttered by a government official and angry students immediately shut it down, demanding that they be informed what precisely is being done to prevent another spontaneous combustion from occurring. There is censure of Donald Trump and the Republican Party, specifically what they represent when it comes to tackling America’s obvious gun problem: absolutely nothing. They don’t care as long as they continue to receive money from their donors. So it should not come to a surprise that there were more mass shootings than days in 2019 (CBS News).
“Spontaneous” functions on relatively high tension; it creates a sinking feeling that no one is safe. A few sections around the hour mark could have used a bit more fire, but Mara and Dylan’s romantic relationship manages to outshine the occasional sluggish pacing. If you’re craving for a different take on high school life and romance, give this one a try. But do not expect puppies and rainbows. Expect death, helplessness, and a whole lot of drinking to numb feelings of pain and loss. This is a dramedy, not a rom-com.