It’s hard to say what impact Spontaneous will have years down the line, if it will be remembered as a classic teen film and resonate with a new generation of moviegoers. But in 2020, in the midst of a Trump presidency and a global health crisis that have worked in tandem to make each day somehow worse than the last, Spontaneous is perfect.
A small, unassuming town is struck by tragedy when a high school senior spontaneously combusts in the middle of math class. It feels like a bizarre, never to be repeated aberration…until it happens again. And again. And again. Kids just keep exploding, and no one can figure out how to stop it, least of all high school eccentric Mara (Katherine Langford), who’s just trying to make it to graduation with her best friend and new romantic interest both intact.
Mara, for her part, is a pitch-perfect heroine for our times. She’s witty, irreverent, occasionally combative and impulsive, yet refreshingly real. In a lot of ways, she feels like a punched-up version of the coolest, most confident girl you knew in high school. Her reactions to the burgeoning crisis of exploding teenagers are both poignant and complex: she vacillates wildly between an aggressively confrontational acknowledgement of her own mortality, as though keeping it front and center in her mind will somehow make it easier to process, and using every means in her power to blunt the emotional impact of constant fear and loss.
Spontaneous captures perhaps better than anything how deeply and unrelentingly weird it is to be a teenager right now. When you’re a senior in high school, everyone wants you to feel like the world is your oyster, that you can go out and do anything you want. But how do you reconcile that with a reality that has never felt more unstable and unsafe? There’s a sense of anxiety, hopelessness, and fatalism that pervades the worldview of the teenagers in Spontaneous as the body count continues to rise and their situation becomes more dire. What is the point of school, or anything, for that matter, if all signs point to your guts decorating the ceiling by graduation? Adults promised them the future, but what kind of future actually awaits them?
Spontaneous is a perfect metaphor for what our youth are faced with today: just as their world is supposed to be expanding and filled with possibilities, it has become more suffocating and closed off than ever. The overwhelming disillusionment is palpable. But what’s also striking about Spontaneous is, surprisingly, its sense of humor. There’s anger and sadness, of course, but there’s a general vibe that everything is so inherently absurd that all you can do is laugh and maybe extend a middle finger at the world. And you can tell from the first of many funeral sequences, when Mara sees the deceased’s father mournfully pulling his daughter’s stick figure off the family decal from the back of their suburban minivan, that Spontaneous isn’t going to have a conventional approach to grief.
It highlights what a scary world this new generation is growing up in. Going to parties is a risk. Attending school is a risk. Being alive is a risk. If it’s not COVID-19, it’s the perpetual threat of school shootings, or the looming spectre of climate change, or a million other reasons why teenagers should be skeptical of anyone trying to sell them a bright and sunny future. But amidst all this gloom, people still have to live. And the cheerful, completely uncynical relationship that blooms between Dylan (Charlie Plummer) and Mara feels all the more special because it was able to happen even in spite of their very bleak surroundings. There’s a charming, unassuming quality to their interactions that feels incredibly natural, where they’re utterly taken with each other and completely in the moment. They provide an escape, however fleeting, for one another.
In a lot of ways, Spontaneous feels like an incredibly powerful valedictorian speech. Life is kind of going to suck a lot of the time, and as soon as you think you’ve got a handle on things, it’s going to throw a curveball at you, or pull the rug out from under you, or any other appropriate metaphor you can think of. You’re going to spend a lot of time fantasizing about the cool things you’re going to do someday. But we could all die at any moment, right? So there’s no point in saving up all the fun for some hypothetical future, and when it comes to the bad stuff, you just have to keep pushing through. That’s the message, anyway. Given the vaguely nihilistic sense of humor of Spontaneous, it feels almost fitting that its central, motivational takeaway would be so thoroughly and ironically undercut by a bizarre, once-in-a-century global health crisis that has literally put a stop to most “seize the day” opportunities. But all of that pain and anger and anxiety our current reality stirs up makes Spontaneous the ideal film for its unique moment in time.