For years, pop culture has asked: high school sucks, but what crazy circumstances could make it even worse? SPONTANEOUS takes these students further than SATs and homecoming, making their senior year a matter of life-and-death.
Mara (Katherine Langford) is a student at Covington High School, taking it day-by-day until one of her peers spontaneously combusts during class. Inspired by the idea that they may not make it to graduation, she is approached by Dylan (Charlie Plummer), who confesses that he has a crush on her. The two begin a relationship as more of their classmates die and their future becomes uncertain.
Though the film and the book it was adapted from were written long before this year, it’s impossible to watch SPONTANEOUS and not see similarities to the current pandemic. Students quarantine and take experimental pills with no real solution in sight, all the while wondering if they or their loved ones will be the next to go. Mara’s parents attempt to keep things “normal” by filling out college applications, while Mara becomes an alcoholic to cope. Surrounded by adults who will not address the real danger they are in, students are forced to face their own mortality and decide how they will spend what time they have left.
Though the most immediate comparison is to COVID-19, the movie also serves as an allegory for how students are affected by school shootings. During a quarantine visit, a Washington official’s “thoughts and prayers” prompt jeers from the students, who point out that well wishes will not lead to the cure. In all three scenarios, the severity of the situation is addressed but not resolved, placing the teens in a limbo where they are supposed to pretend everything is normal, but can also envision dying before graduation.
While SPONTANEOUS doesn’t shy away from dark matters, Brian Duffield’s film inspires viewers to live each day to the fullest in a message that’s too apt for the current audience. What are you supposed to do when it seems like the world’s ending, but you have to keep waking up every day? Is feeling happy for a moment meaningless when everything else is so terrible? SPONTANEOUS argues that we do what we can because that’s all we’ve got.
SPONTANEOUS’s optimistic, hands-off outlook is its strength, but also its greatest weakness. In resolving a film that never intended to explain its problem, SPONTANEOUS seems to say that what happens, happens, and we have to learn how to live with it. When students magically stop combusting, it’s the ending, but that’s not something we’re afforded in real life. There are situations out of our control and there are situations where we’ve fought to make change – as we’ve seen this year, we have to actively work for that change.
With “your mom” jokes, indie songs, and classic teen rebellion against the system, SPONTANEOUS is bright and willfully ignorant in a way that we tend to associate with high school, for better or for worse.
SPONTANEOUS will have a limited theatrical release on Oct. 2, followed by a digital release on Oct. 6.