Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
Mara Carlyle (Katherine Langford) is a high school senior at Covington High School. She is just like any other senior, waiting to graduate and spending all her spare time with new boyfriend Dylan (Charlie Plummer). But some of Mara and Dylan’s classmates have literally started spontaneously exploding inside and outside of class – and no one knows why.
Yes, you read that right. The students in Spontaneous are spontaneously exploding into ridiculously bloody messes. And yes, the Film has a habit of showing the grisly aftermath of nearly all of those explosions. I know that will instantly turn a number of viewers off, so I feel it is apt to mention it right near the top of this review. It is certainly jarring when it initially happens mere moments into the start of the Film, so you will know very quickly whether you are in or out for what comes next.
If you do stay, you will watch one of the most unique entries in the Coming-of-Age Teenage Romance genre in recent memory. Spontaneous plays into many of those conventions we know and love, and is more mature than many other films of its ilk. It even manages to remix the tongue in cheek style of Heathers into a more palatable and less egregious way for the modern day. Beyond that, it packs a winning lead performance from Langford. She has a blast going through hell and back as Mara, acutely aware of the wide range of emotions she faces at any given moment. She is just as funny as she is powerfully-moving. She taps into her devastating work as Hannah Baker in the highly controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why a bit too often for my liking, but she carries the Film from beginning to end like a seasoned veteran. And her chemistry with Plummer is absolutely delightful.
While it strikes me as more than slightly ill-advised to be releasing a film about a deadly pandemic when we are literally living through a deadly pandemic, the bigger issue I had with Spontaneous was its inconsistent tonal structure. At once, Spontaneous wants to be a Dark Comedy, a bleak Drama, a cutesy Coming-of-Age Romance, a Sci-Fi Thriller and a gnarly Body Horror film. Pairing one or two of those off would be challenging though not impossible. Spontaneous on the other hand, tries to make all five come together simultaneously – but those mismatched tones just do not fit together the way the Film thinks they do. The chaotic tonal pivots come fast and furious, and the Film just cannot keep up with the demands it sets for itself. I understand the tonal anarchy is likely intentional and may have worked in Aaron Starmer’s original Novel, but the Film is at its strongest when it just focuses on one of those things and falls apart whenever it tries to mash them together all at once.
I love Coming-of-Age Teenage Romances. I am not embarrassed to say they are one of my most treasured genres of Filmmaking. And I genuinely wanted to love Spontaneous and feel like I would have if not for the tonal whiplash I received while watching it. I can appreciate how unique the Film is within its overplayed genre, and think Langford’s lead performance was great, but the tonal pivots could have been handled with more care and should have been less off-putting.
Paramount Pictures Canada release SPONTANEOUS onDigital and On-Demand on Tuesday, October 6, 2020.