By Sydney Bucksbaum
October 08, 2020 at 08:30 PM EDT
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Daniel Power

Who would have thought that a story about exploding teenagers would be the most appropriate movie for 2020? The new satirical comedy Spontaneous is based on Aaron Starmer's YA novel of the same name, and while the book was written back in 2014 and the movie was shot in 2018, it couldn't be more perfect for where we're collectively at this far into 2020.

The movie stars Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why, Cursed) as Mara, a typical high schooler who just wants to get through senior year alive. That's literal, because her classmates start mysteriously spontaneously combusting, and the government and scientists can't figure out why. The parallels to the real world can't be denied, with Gen Z having to grapple with life or death stakes every day while being expected to accept a bleak future for themselves because of things totally out of their control. At one point, an old government official tells the dwindling high school class that they have all their "thoughts and prayers," and the teens just straight up laugh in his face as they stand up to him, saying that politicians clearly don't care about them. The explosive movie is a smart, pointed look at the reality for young people in today's world, especially during a mysterious health crisis that's killing people with no one knowing how to stop it. And yet, amidst all that death and chaos, the focus of the movie is actually on Mara as she falls in love with her classmate Dylan (Looking For Alaska's Charlie Plummer). They choose to find some semblance of normal and view their situation with a dark sense of humor.

See? It really is the perfect movie for 2020. Even the book's author is struck by just how weirdly timely his story has become. "If you read the book, there is a woman president in it. It was wishful thinking at that time," Starmer said during the film's New York Comic-Con panel on Thursday. "It was a story about a senior year more than anything, and today I'm reading the news about people in hazmat suits going into a college, so here we are. We're in the middle of it."

Comedian Rob Huebel, who plays Mara's dad Charlie, joked that the film's writer/director Brian Duffield is actually a time traveler because so many moments in the movie feel like they're ripped from this bizarre year. "We accidentally became really on the nose, and a couple years ago we were very broad and satirical in a way, and now it's not broad at all," Duffield agreed with a laugh. "It feels less comedic and more, 'Oh yeah, this is how it works.' If I could make it again I would change a bunch of things because we know so much more about pandemic response. I was making most of it up and now I'm like, yeah, they would make kids wear masks."

Cast member Hayley Law (Riverdale), who plays Mara's best friend Tess, points out how, in the movie, the high school seniors are forced into a mandatory quarantine while the government officials try to figure out what's causing the deaths, worried that it could be contagious. "I remember when we were doing it, I was like, 'Could you imagine if they actually made us quarantine?!'" she said with a laugh. And Duffield reveals that Langford actually filmed a scene where Mara was wearing a mask, but the scene ended up getting cut from the final version of the film. "It feels really stupid that that got cut," he added.

While Starmer did not use a time machine to write the story six years ago, he does admit that the premise actually "works much better as a movie" now that he's seen how Duffield adapted it. Starmer reveals he was inspired to write a typical YA romance with something strange thrown into it, and since he always thought spontaneous combustion was funny, Spontaneous was born. "And then later I realized there's a line, I don't know if it's in the book or the movie for The Fault in Our Stars, where Shailene Woodley says something about being a grenade that could blow up at any time," Starmer says. "And I realized that I was probably watching that movie and thinking, 'Wow, that would be an interesting turn of events in this movie.' So I blame John Green for that."

When Langford first read the script for Spontaneous, she loved how the "existential romance" never pandered to young people. She says it always felt like it was coming from their perspective rather than being written for them, to the point where she's actually watched the movie now multiple times because she enjoys it so much. And Plummer couldn't believe this was actually getting made. "I remember thinking that if this actually gets made, I really hope I get to be a part of it," he said. "I just was so blown away by Mara as the narrator and as the central character, I really loved her and her voice. She especially made me laugh so much. It just mopped the floor with most other scripts I had been reading at the time."

Huebel felt the same way as Plummer. "I just couldn't believe that they were going to make this movie. It literally blew my mind," he said. "I was like, 'I'll go to Vancouver, but they're not going to f---ing make this movie.' The movie is so funny, and so dark, but also so sweet. It's such a weird but magical combination that I really can't believe that Brian pulled this off."

That's what Law loved about Spontaneous — even though the premise is wild and things get gory, it's really about the teen romance at the center of it all. "I was traumatized when people were exploding and then would get sucked into the love story," she said. "I was just like, 'God they're so cute,' and then something terrible would happen and I'd be like, 'Ohhh, yeah. That's where we are.'"

Check out the full NYCC panel below to find out what it was like working with "waterfalls of blood" and "blood canons" on set, what to expect from the hilariously dark movie, and more. Come for the entertaining panel, but stay for Huebel's shocking exit at the very end:

Spontaneous is now playing in select theaters and available at home on-demand or to purchase on digital platforms.

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