Grand jury award winner for narrative feature competition deserves its accolades
Bursting onto the scene with a ferocity matched only by the tears it will draw out of you, the astounding and assured SXSW Grand Jury Winner The Fallout launches writer/director Megan Park and her cast into a whole different stratosphere. Exploring the impact of a school shooting on Vada (Jenna Ortega) and her family and friends, The Fallout manages to find that ever important and elusive key ingredient: authenticity. Of course, authenticity is so elusive precisely because of how subjective it is. This 40 something straight white male didn’t observe one false note in The Fallout, even as I simultaneously recognized that today’s teen culture is so far removed from my own that I’m a wholly unreliable authority when it comes to how authentically their lives are portrayed. Part of the impact of The Fallout for someone of my age and generation, however, is how important it is to listen to and validate our teens’ increasingly baffling realities. We ignore the culture of our young students at our own peril. And while the motivations, background, or psychology of this story’s shooter are not given any screen time, The Fallout makes clear that the ripple effects of school shootings are vast and far more complicated than just the question of “why” did one particular student lash out in violence against their peers. We have to pay attention to those shockwaves and listen to our young people or we’ll lose those who are crushed in the aftermath of the violence as well.
Vada takes a casual visit to the school restroom where she encounters classmate and social media influencer Mia (Maddie Ziegler) doing her makeup. Even though she texts her best friend Nick (Will Ropp) making fun of Mia’s beautifying, she’s kind to Mia, letting her know she doesn’t need makeup to look beautiful. Then shots ring out. We never leave the bathroom, entirely focusing on Vada and Mia’s intensely personal experience. There’s the jumping up on the toilet and locking the stall door. There’s muffled horror as someone enters the bathroom. There’s relief when it is determined that Quinton (Niles Fitch) isn’t the shooter, but as he crawls into the stall with Vada and Mia, he’s covered in blood… his own brother’s blood. Mia vomits, and just like that, the film’s depiction of the shooting itself is over. Probably not even 15 minutes of the film have passed by this time. Which makes its title, The Fallout, the genuine thrust of the film as a whole. But I went into detail describing how the film depicts the school shooting because it is illustrative of the style Park brings to the script and direction. This is a very subjective story focused very much on Vada’s experience of life. It’s also very detail oriented. Mia and Quinton become a lifeline for Vada, peers and friends with which she shared something wholly traumatic, and without whom she’ll probably never fully heal.
If there’s anything America is possibly more obsessed with than guns, it’s “moving on”. We’ve convinced ourselves as a nation that the only way to heal is simply to keep moving forward at all costs. To let the past die. There’s a constant refrain in our nation that in order for true healing to occur, we have to keep pressing forward. It’s a deeply flawed notion, honestly. Tragic. Because if we’re honest with ourselves, deep down we all know that trauma is deep and profound. It can’t be outrun. Trauma will work its way out by spilling into our lives in a wide variety of ways individually and collectively. The soul crushing frequency of school shootings is one obvious manifestation of this truth. Nationwide trauma is inflicted with each new shooting, and in each child who experiences an event like this, individual trauma is planted deep.
Vada is a remarkable 21st century protagonist for whom we root deeply, finding ourselves incredibly invested in her process of dealing with this tragedy. Will she, Mia, Quinton, and Nick even all make it through this film? Or will they be forever broken by this awful violence? We come to love Vada because of how raw she is and how humanely she treats her peers. Ortega’s performance goes a long way here. A true breakout starring role if ever there was one. The same goes for Maddie Ziegler as Mia. (It’s worth noting that both of these young women, as well as Park herself, have myriad IMDb credits between them and bring loads of experience to this project even if their work was previously unknown to my old white ass). Vada’s natural inclination is to delve into relationships with those whom she shared the trauma. She becomes inseparable from Mia, who has wealth, talent, fame, and beauty… but whose “super chill” dads can’t be bothered to come home from Europe to console their child. She makes a point to attend the memorial service for Quinton’s brother, and really makes herself available to Quinton and listen to him. Yet she keeps at arms length those in her life that weren’t in that bathroom with her. As Nick becomes a Parkland-style political figure campaigning against gun access, their relationship becomes strained. And Vada can barely stand to be around her caring but lost parents and her bubbly younger sister who obviously worships her. Some of the sequences featuring Vada’s journey back to her family are the film’s most ugly-cry inducing.
Park has achieved something incredible here, focusing on the topical tragedy of school gun violence that has become sadly emblematic of modern American life, and then grounding it in a bravely realistic portrait of teen life that peels back a veil of mystery not unlike films like Thirteen or Eighth Grade have done… making us cringe at the awkwardness of this time of life even as our jaws drop realizing what “kids these days” have to deal with that we never had to. The Fallout will have you on the edge of your seat, rooting for Vada to find healing and to bring her friends and family with her. It’ll have you mourning at the cyclical trauma that gun violence is inflicting on us collectively. It’ll also remind us that there is no “moving on”. There is no “putting it behind us”. Vada can only even begin to heal by acknowledging and processing what happened to her and sharing that trauma with others. What’s true for Vada is true for all of us. If we truly want to move forward from the host of traumas in our lives, we’ve got to lean into them, address their roots, and rely on one another or we’ll absolutely collapse under their weight.
And I’m Out.