Tuesday, November 10, 2020

SPONTANEOUS, one of the best films of the year, is now out on DVD

When SPONTANEOUS hit VOD about five weeks ago, I was preparing for an extremely hectic month, so I opted not to do one of my long reviews then, figuring that by the time it came out on DVD on November 10th, I'd be able to really give it the attention it deserved.

Ha. If you've read this blog over the last few weeks, you know that my life is WAY too busy to do that, so I've decided to do a briefer, spoiler free review. I'm writing this because I want you to see it.

SPONTANEOUS is easily my favorite movie of the year. I realize that's not saying much in a year like this, so it might help to add that this would have been in my Top 5, maybe Top 3 of last year, had it come out then. It's one of those movies that I call a "magic trick" film. If someone told you about it, you'd never imagine in a million years that it would work flawlessly on screen. It walks this amazing tonal tightrope between being a dark comedy, and heartfelt, sincere, and heartbreaking. If I saw it as a teen, it's the kind of movie that would have made me want to MAKE movies.

A number of my early scripts were attempts at mashing up tones and genres that didn't usually work together. The result was a lot of scripts that few people knew what to make of, and if I'm being honest with myself, there probably was a question if the tone worked on the page, let alone was going to be effective on-screen. When I see someone stick the landing with a movie that almost invents its own tone, I take notice.

The premise is that teenagers start spontaneously exploding. One of the script's boldest decisions is the deaths are played for laughs BEFORE we're asked to care about people whose lives are at stake.  Some 45 seconds into the film, a student has exploded suddenly, splattering their classmates with blood. As everyone else in her class is trying to make sense of it, Katherine Langford's Mara reacts to the first death with ironic detachment.

This is a risk. It's like doing a slasher film where we're laughing at the killer BEFORE he has to be scary. It can be pulled off, but a layer of difficultly has just been added. And the movie has to do that while continuing to absurdly blow up its cast.

Oh. And it's also a love story. It's a really heartfelt romance that blossoms between Mara and Charlie Plummer's Dylan. He's admired her from afar for a while, but when the exploding classmates make everyone feel like they could go at any time, Dylan takes his shot, and for a while they go through the expected moments of teenage romance, until the pandemic takes over and accelerates their story in a different direction.

There's a sequence an hour into the film that's balls-out insane - it's comedy, horror and tragedy all in one perfect symphony that would be ruined if any single instrument was off-key. I don't want to say anything about it for fear of diluting the sequence's impact, but I consider it a major tragedy of 2020 that I couldn't experience it in a theatre full of screaming moviegoers.

I'd read the Aaron Starmer novel upon which the film is based, and as much as it worked on the page, I really wondered if the movie could blow up so many teenagers on screen and maintain the wry tone of the novel, told through Mara's eyes. It's one thing to have her say something like, "Oh, and then they blew up." It's quite enough to put that very absurd image on screen and not have it be too horrifying or too silly to keep the emotional reality going. As much as I enjoyed the novel, I think the film is sharper and more focused. It trims away a few subplots and reshapes Mara and Dylan slightly.

If you've been here a while, you'll know I've been a fan of Katherine Langford since her breakout performance in season one of 13 REASONS WHY. That was her first major role, even though I've enjoyed her in every thing she's appeared in since, she's usually been playing supporting parts that have been less challenging than Hannah Baker. SPONTANEOUS is my favorite performance of hers since that first season and she plays Mara unlike any of her other parts. With the curly blonde wig, she's almost unrecognizble as the suicidal teen she became famous for playing.

Her performance is equally unrecognizable. Langford proved she could do heavy drama on 13RW, but here she's got razor sharp comic timing and is clearly having a ball playing a broader character, one with a more sardonic edge. The best way I can describe her character here is "the love child of Michelle Williams and Busy Philipps." There's an energy to her performance that's completely apart from the shy, withdrawn teens she's played before.

The film doesn't shy away from dealing with death and the devastation it visits on those left behind. I think the ending of Mara's journey is one that doesn't deserve to be spoiled in this review, but I do want to say that after all the loss, the movie ends up in a very life-affirming place. After seeing so many people around you randomly dying, and knowing you could be next, how do you move forward with your life?

 As timely as these themes feel in a pandemic, I feel like the movie wouldn't even need that extra context to resonate so hard here. I'm not kidding when I say this film deserves to be on a lot of Best of lists at the end of the year. I'm totally available to do the door-to-door canvasing for the Oscars when the time comes.

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