Spontaneous (2020)

It’s very difficult for the post-Heathers high school black comedy to match the exact glorious highs of Daniel Waters’s 1989 classic. In the late 1990s, titles like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Jawbreaker, and Sugar & Spice leaned a little too hard into the flippant cruelty of the Heathers template, while more recent works like Mean Girls, The DUFF, and The Edge of Seventeen aren’t quite cruel enough. That’s why it’s a little frustrating that Spontaneous is so dead-on in its post-Heathers teen comedy cruelty in its first half, only to abandon that black comedy tone entirely as it reaches for a more earnest, less humorous conclusion. Of all the Heathers descendants I’ve enjoyed over the years, this one starts off with the most promise to share its icy, sardonic throne as the queen of the genre; then it abruptly decides it’s interested in pursuing something much more muted & emotionally grounded. I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment for that tonal shift as a result, even if the movie still holds up as a cute, enjoyable experience on its own terms.

Spontaneous is a shockingly well-timed horror-comedy-turned-teenage-melodrama. It’s about a spontaneous combustion pandemic that spreads throughout the senior class of one specific high school, forcing the student body into strict quarantine as their friends & classmates explode one by one in spectacular displays of gore. All the isolation & unprocessed grief that’s been hanging over high school & college kids since the coronavirus pandemic derailed all semblance of normalcy in March of 2020 is reflected here in a way the filmmakers could not have anticipated. Regardless of last year’s hyper-specific health pandemic context, though, the spontaneous combustion phenomenon works well enough as a generalized representation of the social pressures & gloom that hang over the heads of all kids who’re trying to remain optimistic about their futures as our planet continues to fall apart. It’s difficult to plan for the future when climate change, nuclear war, or your entire senior class exploding into piles of mush all threaten to end the world as we know it, so you might as well live in the moment – spontaneously.

There’s a lot to be disappointed by here if you’re looking to complain. It starts very strong when having morbid fun with its premise, but gradually loses steam as the heaviness of the material outweighs what its teen-drama earnestness can manage. I personally would’ve loved to see a version of this same film built around the lead’s friendship with her bestie rather than her brief senior-year romance with the new boy in town, since it’s a relationship that’s much better established & more worthy of exploring. I also obviously have a major mental block in assessing it as its own isolated accomplishment without constantly comparing it to my beloved Heathers, which it only echoes in its first hour. Ultimately, these are probably smart choices on the film’s part in reaching out to a teenage audience instead of my dusty thirtysomething sensibilities. The big emotions of the doomed romance, the dwelling on communal grief, and the Spencer Krug & Sufjan Stevens soundtrack cues are all perfectly pitched to hyperbolic teenage Feelings in a way I’m not sure I’ve seen matched since Your Name. Hopefully that teen audience will find this small, off-kilter gem while its context of graduating high school mid-pandemic is still a fresh, relatable wound.

If there’s any irony in me nitpicking Spontaneous‘s comedy-to-melodrama tonal shift, it’s the way that trajectory matches my very favorite aspect of the film. It perfectly captures the way that high school kids will impulsively say something mean to people who don’t deserve it in an attempt to be funny, then immediately regret that decision. The movie itself has flippant fun with its exploding-teens premise until the blood dries, and it has to clean up the emotional hurt that’s left behind – which is the same natural tendency the lead has to fight in herself as she treats everything around her as a meaningless joke. There’s something distinctly Veronica Sawyer about that character trait, as well as something universal to anyone who’s ever been a moody teenager. This is a fun, cute movie about a fucked-up tragedy, until the fun & cute evaporates and all that’s left is the fucked-up part.

-Brandon Ledet

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

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fourstar

“I just had the worst thought. I’ve got to spend the rest of my life with myself.”

Is the world finally realizing that the 90s high school movie was one of the all-time heights of comedy cinema? The last gasp of the genuine Heathers & Clueless lineage might have been Mean Girls in 2004, but we’ve recently seen a few really great throwbacks to the era that repurpose 90s high school movie tropes for a new effect. Cheerleader reinterprets the genre as an abstract art piece. The To Do List transforms it into a raunchy, gender-flipped sex comedy. The DUFF lightly parodies it in a longform homage. The Edge of Seventeen, for its part, follows the basic rules of the 90s high school movie, except it matures the material slightly by portraying its teen girl protagonist as a deeply flawed antihero. Nadine (Hailee Seinfeld) is a mean, self-centered emotional wreck who talks trash a mile a minute as a means to cover up her own anxieties & vulnerabilities. In other words, she’s a realistic portrait of a teenager (or at least how I remember my asshole teenage self). The Edge of Seventeen is a worthy contribution to the high school comedy genre, not least of all because it adds a realistic layer of paradoxical self-loathing narcissism to its young protagonist that taps into a strikingly honest aspect of teen life that isn’t often represented onscreen. Or at least not often enough.

The movie opens with a grizzled history teacher (Woody Harrelson, reprising a less-drunk version of his role in The Hunger Games) shrugging off Nadine’s threat of suicide. She’s in so much pain; you can see it in her eyes as she rattles off a long list of grievances with the world and the details of the way she’d most like to die. Her teacher slowly, methodically deflates her moment of crisis by turning it into a quietly sweet, but deeply mean-spirited joke. This method works in its own weird way as it both slows down Nadine’s panic-mode thought processes, but also matches her own mean-spirited mode of verbally lashing out at people she cares about, but can’t control. Her reasons for being suicidally upset range from legitimate grief over a lost family member to petty anxiety over not being able to dictate the romantic pairings of her best friend, her family, her crush, or the boy who crushes on her. She harshly pushes away anyone who could potentially care about her, yet yearns for genuine interpersonal intimacy. The Edge of Seventeen is an eerily accurate portrait of teenage life that captures both the small details of lazing around watching TV, depending on others for transportation, and puking orange soda mix drinks into your parents’ toilet as well as the larger themes of godlike hubris clashing with soul-crushing self deprecation that makes teens so difficult to deal with, even when you are one. As self-centered as Nadine constantly seems to be, she often breaks down to ask friends questions like “How do you even like me? What’s wrong with you? I don’t even like me.” It’s that exact narcissistic self-conflict and focus on an anxious time where every thing means everything that makes this film so true to one of life’s most unpleasant stretches.

One of the best parts about The Edge of Seventeen is how it accomplishes all this while still feeling like a traditional high school comedy. This isn’t the soul-shattering trauma of The Diary of a Teenage Girl or the indie-minded, slang-loaded melodrama of Juno. In its own muted way, The Edge of Seventeen follows the will-they-won’t-they patterns of any & all high school romcoms and it’s tempting to call the film typical of its genre because of that narrative predictability. Everything outside of the basic plot structure is handled too smartly for me to be that reductive, though. Nadine’s own quest for self-acceptance and friendship is given far more prominence than her romantic machinations. Of all the people she can’t seem to get along with despite herself, she clashes hardest with her mother, yet the two are nearly identical personalities. The movie could’ve made a huge, emotionally cathartic deal out of that tension or out of Nadine’s oddly antagonistic relationship with her favorite teacher. Instead, it lets those relationships exist as they are and allows the audience to catch up with how they’re significant in its own time. It’s also an R-rated teen comedy with a female emotional bully protagonist who’s far less interested in winning people over than she is in protecting herself from yet another damaging blow to her heart & her ego. As much as The Edge of Seventeen feels like a throwback to a genre that saw its heyday two whole decades ago, it also exists as a shining exception of unflinching black comedy & truthful self-examination that doesn’t often touch the teen comedy genre outside an outlier like Election or Strangers With Candy. It’s a rare treat in that way, however bittersweet.

-Brandon Ledet