Katherine Langford as Mara Carlyle
Charlie Plummer as Dylan Hovemeyer
Hayley Law as Tess McNulty
Piper Perabo as Angela Carlyle
Rob Huebel as Charlie Carlyle
Yvonne Orji as Agent Carla Rosetti
Laine MacNeil as Jenna Dalton
Written and Directed by Brian Duffield
Whether it’s Hollywood trying to off the genre themselves or tap into some weird new group always present in the audience, the “dying teens romance” subgenre is one that’s nearly tapped dry as countless films use the setup to varying degrees of success — and failures. But now Brian Duffield’s adaptation of Aaron Starmer’s Spontaneous has come along and offered a unique and darkly hilarious new twist to the formula that even when it feels familiar or predictable, the experience as a whole proves to be a joyous and energetic ride to offset its negative qualities.
It’s senior year for Mara and Dylan, two teens familiar with each other but having spent little time together, and their lives are thrown upside down as random members of the senior student body being spontaneously exploding and the government has no explanation for it. With their world now being one in which any moment can be their last, they find a connection in one another and grow closer and older as they wonder if there’s even a future for them.
High school romance is never something that necessarily died out, but rather a formula that’s been slowly coming back in quality fashion with such hits as Netflix’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before movies and Spontaneous finds arguably the most unique and compelling new route for the genre. While there’s still some of the teen angst of wondering what to do with their future and their social standing at school, it doesn’t make up the majority of the story or the dialogue and instead allows viewers to figure out who to care about through its explosive central premise.
How does a filmmaker go about handling the random explosion of teenagers in a school of seemingly good-hearted students? Does one establish some true villains and give them a righteous demise, does one approach it with a level of humor or treat it like the horrifying situation that it is? In the hands of Brian Duffield, who’s delivered audiences everything from the Lovecraftian aquatic survival thriller Underwater to the action western Jane Got a Gun, the story is given a John Hughes-like approach full of dark humor and tongue-in-cheek offscreen narration from its protagonist that works wonders for the film. While a more horror take on this concept might prove equally fun and exciting to watch, a strictly serious tone and approach would’ve been such a bummer and drag that would’ve made the film too dour a watch, but Duffield finds the right balance between expressing a sense of humor throughout the film while allowing some of its more serious moments to resonate with audiences’ heartstrings.
The film’s only real problems lie in its fairly repetitive nature of its gimmick and the predictable nature of its overall story, especially the growing romance between Mara and Dylan. It’s nice for once to see a high school couple in the film not hit a rocky path due to their social standings and dumb teen tropes, but instead act like mostly mature people whose only real threat to their relationship is the literal ticking time bomb inside many of them. It offers a strictly optimistic and sweet-hearted romance that’s great to watch, even if it becomes clear how each step will play out. Though it handles it mostly humorously, as well as one pulse-pounding rapid fire montage of deaths, the spontaneous explosions of students does start to lose its luster as it becomes clear who’s going to die and when that doesn’t feel quite as unpredictable as the first third of the film.
One of the only other major problems in the film comes from some of its questionable and odd dialogue for its teenage characters, namely its more sexually-driven jokes and conversations. One would have to have either never gone to a public high school or have lived under a rock while there to avoid sex talk and profanity from the student body, and films are certainly allowed to depict this to keep a level of authenticity to its world, but the way some of the students talk feels far more forced or borderline creepy rather than funny or real. Everything from a girl saying she’d “top” both one of her male and female classmates to a couple talking about their sexual pasts with cringeworthy language, some of these moments feel far less like Mean Girls and far more like a gross Heathers.
Some dialogue problems and familiarity aside, Brian Duffield continues to show a great grip on genre-blending fashion with Spontaneous as he delivers a funny, unique and thrilling take on the teen romance genre that also shows potential for his directorial talents as well as his writing.