In an ideal, much safer world, Megan Park’s The Fallout wouldn’t need to exist. Winner of the SXSW Narrative Feature Competition, The Fallout follows high school student Vada (Jenna Ortega) as she navigates life following a school shooting. Ortega leads a stacked cast of young actors including Niles Fitch, Will Ropp, and Maddie Ziegler, who provides more of a presence than a performance. Park’s directorial debut feature comes at a time when gun violence feels like the norm, especially for a generation that has matured surrounded by school shootings, hate crimes, and youth activism. It doesn’t land every emotional beat, but it’s empathetic in its handling of this situation, one fraught with difficulty for each and teenager.
During the shooting, a five-minute sequence that stays in the girls’ bathroom as each shot rings in the background, Vada shares a stall with Mia (Ziegler), her Instagram-model classmate. They hover over a single toilet, stifling cries and attempting to stay quiet. Each shot sounds both closer and further away, as the two girls have no idea if they are safe. Soon joined by a bloodied Quinton (Fitch), whose brother had just been shot, the teenagers become bonded by trauma and terror. Park’s film remains most affecting during this sequence, as the near feelingless existence that follows for Vada lacks the same effect.
Each student handles the tragedy differently. Vada stays home, unwilling to go back to school yet, and begins drinking wine and smoking weed with Mia, who lives alone while her artist dads work in Europe. Her best friend, Nick (Ropp), becomes a face of activism, organizing marches, speaking on cable news, and striving to make a change. Quinton, who lost a brother during the attack, stays calm and looks grounded, in comparison to the swirling attitude of Vada. Her parents, played by Julie Bowen and John Ortiz, worry about her but do little outside of sending her to therapy, a nice way for Shailene Woodley to hop into the fray for five minutes. Her little sister, Amelia (Lumi Pollack), just wants her sister’s attention, doing TikTok dances, sneaking into her room, and hoping to find some normalcy within her own family.
Ortega grounds the film with a subtle, layered performance that never hedges too hard into emotional despair or an emotional flood. She navigates her life with a sense of unease, unsure what to do or how to feel. In that way, The Fallout would make for a perfect double feature with Sophie Jones, another 2021 film from Jessie Barr that explores teenage loss through a 16-year-old girl’s eyes. Ortega’s performance is never forced, though. She’s relatable, frustrating, sympathetic, intriguing, and valid, both as a character and an actor.
Park’s drama veers into melodrama towards the end of her script, as Vada and her father shout expletives to the rooftops above the city. It’s a “this is the first time I’ve heard my parent curse” kind of scene. The film actually earned a better resolution for Vada, and Park is quick to motion that it isn’t a firm or lasting fix for the teenage girl. Still, Park’s film marks an auspicious debut, one that covers difficult emotions at a difficult age. And that might be the film’s greatest strength: its ability to portray age 16. It features enough references to everyday life for high schoolers, including a soundtrack filled with songs you hear while scrolling through apps designed to pull in that demographic. The onscreen texting actually works, which can’t be said for the majority of teen-related film and television. It’s non-obtrusive with strong dialogue and realistic writing.
The Fallout deserves recognition for its ability to handle the trickiness of high school loss and the anxiety that follows an event that would be cataclysmic in anyone’s life. It shows us a tiny portrait of what someone might be feeling. It represents how one event can alter the lives of dozens, if not hundreds of people, even if those people don’t lose anyone or anything, except for their innocence. Without Ortega, the film would likely lose its luster. In the hands of another writer/director, it could have been a bungled mess, one that doesn’t engage with the aftermath of devastation with such grace, care, and gentleness.
This review is from the 2021 SXSW Film Festival where the film won the juried Narrative Feature prize.
Photo Credit: Kristen Correll