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by Peter Sobczynski

"Combustion Junction"
5 stars

As a rule, I try to cover as many of the new movies coming out each week as possible but even with my best efforts, I cannot always get to every single one. I make a point to tackle all the major releases, of course, but when it comes to the smaller and less heralded titles, I sometimes find myself needing to pick and choose what I am going to cover and what I am going to put aside. If the film in question has a premise that sounds vaguely intriguing, I am usually willing to give it a chance. Likewise, if any of the people who are connected with it are those whose work I have admired in the past, that is oftentimes enough to lure me in. And, of course, there are those films that look so utterly ridiculous (“Money Plane” anyone?) that wild horses could not keep me away. Granted, this is not a flawless system by any means—I have wound up seeing any number of terrible movies this way and I suspect that just as many fine ones have eluded me as well—but for the most part, it seems to work out reasonably well.

Take the new film “Spontaneous,” for example. When I agreed to check it out, it was largely based on the fact that the film’s basic premise (which we will get to in a moment) sounded oddly intriguing and the fact that I liked star Katherine Langford—I didn’t even realize that one of my favorite actresses, Piper Perabo, was in it until I went online to check the running time just before watching it. If it worked, it seemed like it could make for an amusingly gory diversion and if it didn’t, it probably wouldn’t turn out any worse than any number of other films I have seen in recent weeks. Therefore, I went into it with moderate expectations at best and was more than a little surprised and stunned when it was all over and I realized that I had just seen one of the very best films of the year—a movie that starts out like the weirdo comedy that the promos promised but then goes into deeper and more thoughtful areas without ever missing a beat. The end result is one of the smartest, funniest and oddly profound movies about American teenage life that you are likely to see anytime soon and it manages to do all that while deploying enough splattered blood to fill an entire issue of “Fangoria” by itself.

That blood is quick in coming, by the way. One ordinary afternoon in an ordinary pre-calc class at ordinary Covington High School, something extraordinary happens when a student suddenly explodes in the middle of class. She has not blown herself up in the manner of a suicide bomber—her desk, books and clothes are all unscathed (if covered in blood)—but evidently went up more in the manner of a water balloon. The students in the class are brought in by the police, questioned and when no explanation can be found, they are all sent home to deal with what happened in their own ways. For Mara Carlyle (Langford), the cynical girl who was sitting right next to the victim when it happened (though she, like us, did not actually see what happened), it inspires nothing more than the desire to get stoned on shrooms and hang out at the local diner with best friend Tess (Hayley Law). For Dylan (Charlie Plummer), the new kid at school who arrived with rumors of a tragic past, the event has inspired him to embrace life and take chances because it could all be over in a second. In his case, this means confessing to Mara that he is the mystery guy who has been crushing on her via text messages for the last several weeks. It may not be a Meet Cute in the classical sense (suffice it to say, the shrooms make a return appearance) but Mara is unexpectedly charmed by it all and they begin dating.

However, students continue to explode without rhyme or reason—a football player, a girl at a party, the school’s drug-dealing brother and sister twins—and the only things that they seem to have in common is that they are all members of the Covington senior class and Mara seems to be in the vicinity when they occur (she is in the stands at the game, having her first kiss with Dylan outside the party and sitting in the backseat getting a ride from the twins). Government officials swoop in to put the entire senior class under quarantine but their poking and prodding and questioning and experimental medications are for naught as kids continue to explode. Eventually, they are given pills that are supposed to help treat them and sent on their way without any concrete answers as to what is happening to them, leaving them at a loss as to how to proceed. Do they act like Mara and Dylan and use what has happened as an opportunity to fully embrace life? Do they plunge into nihilistic depression over the loss of their friends and the knowledge that they could be next? Do they just try to get back into the usual routine and plow ahead in the hopes that if they keep their heads down and graduate, it will all be over?

Based on a 2016 YA novel by Aaron Starmer, “Spontaneous” starts off sounding like a goofy teen-themed riff on “Scanners” (there is even a Cronenberg name check early on in the proceedings) and the outrageousness of the conceit, combined with the caustic perspective provided by narrator Mara, might lead viewers to conclude from the opening scenes that it is going to be a wild jet-black comedy in the mode of something like the cult classic “Heathers” (1989). However, once the initial shock wears off and the premise begins to sink in, it becomes far less far-fetched than it initially seems. No, as far as I am aware, teenagers are not suddenly succumbing to spontaneous combustion in great numbers these days. However, too many teenagers these days have seen their friends and classmates annihilated by gun violence in school, on the streets or places like malls and movie theaters and if they haven’t, they have certainly seen news reports about such things happening in other places with depressing regularity, enough to presumably make them realize that the sense of invincibility that teenagers usually embrace is being slowly replaced by the heightened sensation that they too could go at any time and that nothing is guaranteed.

As movies based around metaphors go, “Spontaneous” is not exactly subtle (and the scenes of the kids being lied to by government officials struggling to find answers and debating about whether or not to return to school in a time of crisis now have an additional resonance that could not have been anticipated when it was produced) and in the wrong hands, it could have resulted in a ham-fisted and lugubrious mess reminiscent of a lesser Stanley Kramer film. Instead, writer and debuting director Brian Duffield (whose name has appeared on the screenplays of such duds as “Divergent: Insurgent,” “The Babysitter” and “Underwater”) manages to avoid that as it strikes off in unexpected and unexpectedly moving ways. Yes, there is a lot of humor to the story, especially in the early scenes, and watching the romance between Mara and Dylan develop amidst all the chaos is weirdly charming, even lending unexpected poignance to something as ephemeral as The Hooters’s 1985 hit “And We Danced.” As the explosions continue, however, Mara’s bravado soon transforms into despair as the live-life-to-the-fullest-because-you-could-go-any-time principle is brutally turned on its head for her and she plunges into drunken self-destruction as her friends and worried parents (Perabo and Rob Huebel) look on helplessly and the film shifts into a meditation on life and mortality that is surprisingly thoughtful, especially for a film that is described in its IMDb listing as being “comedy/fantasy/sci-fi” without even a hint of the more serious ambitions on hand.

A good chunk of the credit for the ability of “Spontaneous” to successfully navigate the tricky tonal shifts deserves to go to Langford, who turns in the kind of performance that, if there were any justice in the world, would land her squarely in any upcoming award races. She has been good in a lot of things, such as “13 Reasons Why,” “Love, Simon” and “Knives Out” but she is absolutely fantastic here as she takes a potentially ludicrous situation and finds an all-too recognizable humanity amidst all the gore and dark humor that becomes increasingly effective as the film moves into darker and trickier waters. She and Plummer (who recently turned in good work in “Words on Bathroom Walls”) conjure up a winning relationship between their characters that ends up having a tremendous impact because they feel like a couple of real and relatable kids who have somehow managed to find love under extremely unlikely circumstances. Actually, this is one of those films where, with one exception, all of the performances, main and supporting roles alike, all work and help to ground the fantastical premise in reality. (The only one that doesn’t quite work is Yvone Orji’s turn as a federal agent and that is less due to the quality of her performance and more because the character does not quite fit—it feels like a character from the book that may have made more sense on the page but who became extraneous in the adaptation process.)

“Spontaneous” is an incredibly well-done film—easily one of the year’s best—and it is a crying shame that it is barely getting a token release in a few theaters before hitting VOD next week for reasons presumably related to our current pandemic. Then again, even if it were being released at a comparatively normal time, there is still a pretty good chance that it might not attract the audience that it deserves—the premise is likely to put off as many people as it attracts, a few viewers may be irritated by how certain plot details are dealt with and quite a few more may be put off by the amount of blood on display—although the film consistently and cleverly avoids showing the exact physical details of the explosions, it does not shy away from presenting the end results. My guess is that it probably would have slipped through the cracks, only to be rediscovered and embraced a few years down the line by a new generation of viewers unable to comprehend how it could have been so completely ignored on its original release. Mark my words—before too long, “Spontaneous” is going to become the next big cult sensation and deservedly so. Why not get in on the ground floor now before interest in it begins to explode, so to speak?

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originally posted: 09/30/20 04:55:46
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  06-Oct-2020 (R)



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