Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland. These are words that have been burned into our collective minds as a nation as we struggle to deal with a society that puts gun rights over children’s lives. These are atrocities we’ve been forced to reckon with over and over again, and some have even been violently and tragically affected by this epidemic of school violence. Even my alma mater, UNC Charlotte, less than one year after my graduation, fell victim to a mass shooting, killing two, injuring four, and traumatizing a whole community of students, staff, and alumni. I can vividly recall being on vacation visiting a friend (and fellow UNC Charlotte student) in Ireland, frantically texting all of our friends on campus at midnight as events unfolded in Charlotte, trying to get any answers we could. It was those moments of fear, sadness, and anger that shook us and so many other countless schools to our core. It was not a feeling we could simply dismiss or turn into political action or even properly form words to articulate our feelings. We simply had to deal first, think later. This is what The Fallout seeks to explore: the reality that not one person should ever have to endure, but countless have.
Vada (Jenna Ortega) is a high school student of a particularly low-key nature. She goes to class, she socializes with friends, she goes home, rinse, repeat. Vada’s world is upheaved when she finds herself in the literal crossfire of a school shooting with two strangers, Mia (Maddie Ziegler) and Quinton (Niles Fitch). In the aftermath of the shooting, Vada is unable to fully process the trauma she’s been through, and turns to Mia and Quinton’s comfort after having gone through a tragedy together. As the world around them attempts to coax whatever feelings they might have out of them, they find a quiet comfort in each other’s company as they attempt to recover.
Megan Park’s directorial debut is a heavy one, and not one recommended to anyone seeking a light, airy time with a movie. However, it’s a touchy topic that is explored tastefully and empathetically, giving no chance for the violence to feel exploited or the tragedy sensationalized. I particularly commend Park for only showing what was needed to accurately convey her message without making a film too triggering for those affected by the trauma of such incidents. It’s all handled rather gracefully, which I can’t say for many films of its ilk (I’m looking at you, Run, Hide, Fight).
In a word, Ortega is simply a revelation with her performance at the heart of this film. There’s a lot asked of her in this role, and it would be really easy for any actress to fall prey to overacting scenes that require such a minute amount of subtlety, which Ortega consistently finds in her own, charming way. Vada is a character you simply want to hug and let her know everything is going to be okay, even knowing that she’s going to push you away and insist she is fine. It’s a “less is more” performance that pays off in spades come the film’s final scene.
It would also behoove us to discuss Ziegler in the film. Ziegler, coming off a whole heap of controversy after appearing in Sia’s incredibly controversial and critically maligned directorial debut Music in the title role, a non-verbal autistic child, despite not being autistic, seemed to simply be a victim of circumstance of Sia’s misguided, offensive direction. Luckily, that sour taste faded quickly as this performance reminds us that Ziegler is actually a very talented actress when she is given material worthy of her, and The Fallout is. Her role is much more understated than Ortega’s, but she provides a grounded, tragic look into what the world of the popular girl looks like when everything she knows comes crashing down around her.
As much as I love the over-stylized, drug-fueled, hyper-sexualized antics of Euphoria and Skins, it’s refreshing to see a high school drama feel like…well…a high school drama. The actors aren’t well into their 20s, they aren’t going to wild raves and doing the newest designer drugs, they’re simply allowed to just be high schoolers, as unglamorous as that is in most people’s reality. It’s easy to want to sensationalize high school to help cope with the mostly ridiculous, sometimes horrific things that happen there, but this is not the story to do it. I’m grateful for that.
Punctuating the film is a wonderfully moody score from Grammy Award-winner Finneas O’Connell, the brother, co-writer and producer of Billie Eilish and her music. It’s interesting to see Finneas break away from Eilish (who also co-wrote and produced Eilish’s Bond theme “No Time to Die,” so a presumed future Oscar winner) and create a film score teeming with such an oppressive mood. There are strains of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross in the mix, but Finneas finds his own identity separate from what we’ve come to expect from him (Eilish does not appear in the film’s score or soundtrack). It’s a minimal score, but when things kick in during scenes of heightened emotion, it’s when you realize just how effective it is.
The Fallout is a film that I found solid and moving upon first watch, but sitting on its content and themes for the past day, in particular Ortega’s performance in the lead, I’ve come to realize that this film hit me harder than I initially thought. Park’s work as writer and director on her feature debut is incredibly promising (and very pleasing to anyone who grew up watching her on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a show which also launched the career of Shailene Woodley, who is also in this as Vada’s therapist). It’s a poignant film that doesn’t seek to sensationalize school violence for clout, but rather seeks to study and portray the lasting effects that an event like this can have on the survivors, and how there will never be a cleanly-wrapped bow on any of it until the violence simply stops. It’s message hits you in waves, and I was intensely moved by it all.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 17th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.