It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m sitting here, watching and writing about Spontaneous, the only 2020 movie I currently have in my collection (until morning, when my mother opens the copy of Bill & Ted Face the Music I got her). And I didn’t even buy this copy. It was signed and sent to me by the film’s writer/director, Brian Duffield, after providing proof I donated to the 2021 Georgia senate runoffs. He was doing a little Twitter thing to raise money and I figured it was as good a time as ever to be politically active AND get a DVD of the best film of the year.
This is my fourth viewing of Spontaneous, and I still can’t properly explain why it’s a movie that means so much to me. However, I’m here to try and explain, and so my best guess is: expectations. I’m a hard sell on high school comedies, I wasn’t a fan of the other films Duffield had written, and star Katherine Langford is most well-known for her role in the first two seasons of the reprehensible show 13 Reasons Why (I hold no ill will towards Langford for accepting the role, as it was the big break for the young Australian actress, but the lingering effects of bad tastes and all that). When I first saw it, I had no reason to think the movie would be notable in any way.
Spontaneous follows the senior class of Covington High, and specifically two students, Mara (Langford) and Dylan (Charlie Plummer) as members of their class start spontaneously exploding. These two kids fall in love, and as more teens go pop, the ever-looming threat of this mysterious happenstance affecting our heroes becomes stronger and stronger. Spontaneous is a lot of things: a romance, a science-fiction parable, a meditation on tragedy, a pitch-black teen comedy carrying on the legacy of Heathers, and at times a horrifying thriller.
Spontaneous overall carries an air of low expectations; the film wasn’t even released on Blu-ray in its home video release, and the VOD release the preceded it came with no fanfare. It was a movie sent to die, a possible cult classic that got whisked into obscurity by the cinematic trash fire that was 2020. Maybe that’s why this movie means so much to me. Maybe this idea of the movie potentially fading if people like me don’t shut up about it has invaded my psyche, like I’m a warrior for the possibility of this movie finding its audience.
Or maybe it just feels like home. The explosions and their aftermaths function as a number of metaphors, from mental health tragedies to school shootings to the unintentional metaphor of fear of the impossible that hits home all too well in 2020. I’ve been at parties where my peers and I got drunk in remembrance of a fallen friend, and a scene in the first act that opens on a mantle at a high school party with pictures of the first two deceased resting there…it hits me in a way I’d rarely expect. It’s a perfect mixture of the macabre and the rage against said macabre. It’s a very youthful movie, a furious cry against an impossible situation that the characters didn’t ask for and were born into without their consent. I get it. To be young in the modern world feels like nothing makes any sense, that you’ve been dealt a hand with cards covered in poison, to mention nothing of the quality of the cards themselves. It’s unfair, it’s cruel, and when the options are to lie down and take it or to survive for as long as possible on pop culture references and recreational substance use, the latter starts to feel like heroism.
Mara and Dylan aren’t your traditional teen heroes; they lack the eloquence of Charlie from Perks, the whimsy of Juno from Juno, and the narrative symmetry of any John Green character. They feel awkward and confused in a very real way, and most of the things they say are the right amount of nonsensical. They’re not what you want to be as a young person, these tortured souls fighting against the world for the sake of art or humanity or something. All of these kids love each other deeply, they feel things, they hold on to their community and shared traumas. They’re the kind of people you actually were, or at least I was. I see myself and my friends in these characters, and that’s something that you can’t chock up to fancy dialogue or elaborate camera tricks.
Maybe it is just me, maybe I’m wrong and Spontaneous will never have a huge following or a large team of people that fall in love with it, and it’ll stay mine. There are worse things than having a piece of art that feels like yours, and either in an ethereal, lonely way or in a physical way, with my signed DVD, Spontaneous will always be mine. It’s my 2020 anthem, a 101-minute poem of the things I love and the things I hate about being a person. And I will be watching it until I go pop.