Film Review – The Fallout
The Fallout (2022) begins with a horrific event. School shootings have risen at an alarming rate in this country, to the point that districts must implement training programs to help kids in case an attack happens. This would have been unfathomable when I was in high school. Teens should be thinking about homework, hanging out with friends, having fun, and making memories. No one should have to experience the trauma of gun violence, especially young people. Yet with each new report detailing another incident, society has become almost numb. We are living in a world slowly acclimating to this kind of tragedy.
But after the news stations leave, after the endless debates over gun control die down and all the condolences and prayers are given, what’s left? These kids – who barely understand themselves to begin with – must now live with these experiences weighing down on their shoulders. They grapple with the trauma and guilt of being a survivor. Writer/director Megan Park’s feature length debut examines the aftermath of a shooting – how the effects can change a person’s entire world. They may have escaped death, but they are burdened with the unanswered questions over how such a thing could happen. How does one move on? Is it even possible?
We see this through the eyes of Vada (Jenna Ortega). What was supposed to be a normal, regular day at school quickly changes as Vada hears shots fire in a nearby hallway. Vada finds herself hiding in a bathroom stall with fellow classmate Mia (Maddie Ziegler). Mercifully, Park’s direction does not show the violence happening on screen. She understands that hearing the shots and seeing the reactions of both Vada and Mia is all we need to know. To punctuate the suggestion of violence, another student, Quinton (Niles Fitch) runs into the stall with them, covered in blood that is not his.
This scene informs the rest of the film. With sensitivity and care, Park follows Vada in her effort to manage her pain and confusion. People have different ways of processing trauma. Vada’s best friend Nick (Will Ropp) is inclined to do something, to become a spokesperson for people his age. But Vada is adrift. Scene after scene, we see her in a state of limbo, unsure of how to feel or what to do. Although her parents (Julie Bowen, John Ortiz) are loving and understanding, they can’t relate to what she is feeling. Vada is resistant to seeing her therapist (Shailene Woodley) and the relationship she has with her sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack) has come to a standstill. The only person Vada develops an attachment to is Mia, the very person who was by her side when the shooting took place.
Park’s biggest strength is how she highlights the aimlessness of Vada’s situation. Things that meant the world to her now appear unimportant. How can she simply pack up her emotions and go back to school, to sit in the classrooms and walk the hallways where people she knew died? Park’s style (including Kristen Correll’s cinematography) opts for a grounded and natural approach, sometimes inserting slow motion shots to indicate Vada’s point of view. It’s as though she is mentally frozen in place, having difficulty finding respite amidst the sadness. As a form of escape, both Vada and Mia dabble in alcohol and drugs. While I’m not one to support teens partaking in such activities, Park allows us to understand. For those suffocating under duress, they’ll seek out any way to find a moment to breathe.
The writing and performances mold the characters into real, tangible people. This is most impressive with the teens. Vada, Mia, and their classmates move and act as youngsters would, fully aware of their feelings but sometimes unable to articulate them. They stumble on their words, and when directly asked to express themselves may shut off completely. Text messages take the form of deep conversations, and mundane topics – such as Vada and Mia’s debate over which version of Drake they prefer – take on more importance than initially perceived. Jenna Ortega anchors all of this as the central protagonist. She inhabits Vada with a variety of conflicting emotions. She may act defensively toward others or indulge in irresponsible behavior, but she never disconnects with us. We can empathize with every step Vada takes and why it’s so hard for her to come to terms with the shooting. Ortega’s role is a difficult one to perform, but she more than meets the challenge.
There are instances where the narrative pushes things a little too far. These are scenes that break away from the low key, somber tone in favor of more overtly emotive sequences. Vada and Mia having a drunken dance in the middle of a parking lot to music they may or may not be hearing (it’s never made clear) is an example of the film going for broader strokes. When Vada – tripping on an ecstasy high – excuses herself from class only to squirm and crawl all over a hallway floor, the scene plays awkwardly. We’re not sure if the moment is supposed to be funny, sad, or both at the time same time. The most egregious example occurs when two characters yell out all their frustrations on top of a hill overlooking a valley. The scene is meant to give characters a sense of catharsis, but it’s been redone so many times that it has become a form of narrative shorthand.
Although certain pieces did not work for me, The Fallout works as a whole. It acts as an exploration of grief and how something so shocking can alter an entire community. Just as Mass (2021) discussed the ramifications of a school shooting from the parents’ perspective, Megan Park takes a similar event and puts us in the eyes of those who lived it. Both films are difficult watches but are important and necessary. It’s only until we can talk about these issues openly that we are able to find some hope of overcoming them.