'Spontaneous' Review: An explosive high school horror comedy

Brian Duffield’s 'Spontaneous' is a favorable adaptation of Aaron Starmer's novel that might be sloppy, but in a good, "exploding people" way.

A moment of quiet in 'Spontaneous.'
(Image: © Paramount Pictures)

What to Watch Verdict

'Spontaneous' is a bold adaptation that shines a spotlight on Katherine Langford, balancing horror and heart without sacrificing either.


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    🏖️ Katherine Langford's versatility.

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    🏖️ Makes its dialogue count.


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    🏖️ Generically YA at times.

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    🏖️ May not align with everyone's perspective.

Sometimes, movies come into our lives when we need them most. Maybe it’s a theme, maybe it’s a character connection, maybe it’s a single line that stings with all-too-poignant relevance. Such a scenario might explain my ugly crying through the exit monologue in Brian Duffield’s Spontaneous. A riff on the Trainspotting “Choose Life” closer, where a recent high school graduate who's staring down society's bleak future outlook drops, “Trump’s gonna look up at me from his gold-encrusted coffin and go, ‘Who the fuck is this bitch,’ and I’ll tell ‘em, ‘That’s President Bitch’ to you, motherfucker.” A day after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this blood-splattered dark comedy about self-combusting humans moved me with its immovable fight song. Not a typical Saturday morning, mind you, but these aren’t typical times. A film as honest as Spontaneous understands that.

Katherine Langford stars as Mara Carlyle, Hollywood’s favorite brand of alternative-witty teenager who hovers between social circles. Life is hard enough as-is for Mara’s generation, but then the unthinkable happens: classmates start exploding. No warning, no reason. One by one, Mara’s student body bursts like water balloons during lectures, in cars, anywhere. The government quarantines those still alive, searching for a cure to the “Covington Curse” as the media dubs it, but all Mara can do is hope she’s not next. Or her new boyfriend Dylan (a warm and awkward-but-not-too-awkward Charlie Plummer). Or best friend Tess (standout Hayley Law, who steals scenes even when next to Langford).

What’s billed as a quirky “Young Adult” coming-of-age tale about surviving until college is actually this deeply expressive handling of the universe’s unknowns. Spontaneous is deceptive as Mara and Dylan use the first bursting, “sundress of a person” Katelyn Ogden (Mellany Barros), to kindle romantic feelings. Their world could end, messily, at any second. Dylan’s straightforward text to Mara confessing his crush sets forth the film’s obvious and impenetrable message: tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Waste no time, take no guff. You’ve seen this in countless YA dramadies, and will until eternity folds in on itself. It’s cute, it’s pop-culture referential, and it’s, admittedly, familiar.

With full contextual knowledge, I now understand that’s part of the film’s trickery.

As Spontaneous presses onward, past the hazmat bubble sequences where Mara and others are seen jovially interacting with scientists during a dance montage, wackiness fades and emotions run thicker. Snark evaporates and hope washes down the drain like a plastic bottle of confiscated vodka. What once inspired a healing arc where adolescents find meaning in the meaningless turns into a protest against how today’s children have only themselves as allies. How they watch their classmates die, senselessly, while governing bodies offer their “thoughts and prayers.” There’s a sequence where Mara’s back at school, the “Snooze Button” pill seems to be working, and then just like that, another child turns into ceiling bloodstains. Then another. Mara runs frantically, caught in a sea of red-painted youths fearing for their lives in what should be a safe place.

Take this as a metaphor for in-school shootings, and the lingering trauma inflicted upon those present, or as a view of the horror-hazardous angle as a more overarching representation of death’s unpredictability. That’s the magic of Duffield’s script, laced with pointed jabs at our current political landscape that’s sacrificing innocents, like Mara, who wonder if today might be the day they never return home. Spontaneous strives to be more than just another “surviving high school” scenario. It’s about who’s at fault, what has to change, and why the youth of our nation need to fight harder than ever.

Mara’s dependency on alcohol as a coping mechanism throughout the film’s latter half commands a prevalent tonal shift, as her banter morphs from cynical to depressive. She’s allowed to hurt, allowed to grieve, and does so unhealthily because the easiest option is a hard temptation to avoid. Langford plays the manic-pixie dreamgirl akin to Ramona Flowers in a way (just not as magical), then spirals into a drunken stupor of unacknowledged sadness with painful relatability. Think Shanley Caswell in Detention but more serious, or big-time Haley Lu Richardson vibes. Langford is a delight when playing the dominant personality in her relationship with Charlie Plummer’s Dylan, humorously sardonic as a narrator during chaos, and helplessly wounded after the “Snooze Button” proves ineffective. Range in performance is no issue for Langford, who draws an immense amount of sympathy to a character who’s both the best and worst we’ve all ever been.

Of course, we’re talking about a movie influenced by, as Dylan quips, “Cronenbergian” illustrations. Something like Scanners but backed by even less reason. Duffield manages to steer Spontaneous away from becoming overly comedic to a fault, while still capturing the visual brutality of seniors popping like pimples at random. First off-screen, as Mara keeps missing “the moment,” then in her face, whether it be drug dealers giving her a ride, a football jock on the sidelines, or the doomsday’er covered head-to-toe in athletic padding for perceived security. During the stampede mentioned above, gallons of red juices are dumped down a staircase, onto fleeing, screaming kiddos. It’s a gnarly sight that doesn’t skimp on the horrors of inside-out expulsions (even with a Cloverfield callback to Lizzy Caplan’s kaboom), always the film’s nasty reaction to happier asides.

I pressed “Play” on Spontaneous thinking it’d be something zanier, more related to Joseph Kahn’s catalog, fit for a lighter Saturday morning. Instead, I was broken down, rebuilt, and comforted despite our planet being, and I quote, “a cruel piece of shit where nothing makes sense.” Brian Duffield isn’t afraid to call injustice as he sees, or represent the unfairness of life, death, and whatever happens in between. The challenge is not letting those oppressing thoughts win. The motivation is telling the universe to, again I quote Mara, “suck my dick.”  Please don’t assume all these obscenities showcase laziness in writing. Instead, view them for what they are: the fed-up, wits-end proclamations from a girl who’s seen the absolute worst in humanity and she’s not even in college. The world may be a vampire, but Spontaneous is the sunlight we need to counteract those monsters who’d rather hold the rest of us in their shadows.

Spontaneous will release in select theaters on October 2nd and will be available on VOD October 6th.

Matt Donato

Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.