Runtime: 92 minutes
Director: Megan Park
Writer: Megan Park
Stars: Jenna Ortega, Maddie Ziegler, Niles Fitch, John Ortiz, Julie Bowen, Will Ropp, Shailene Woodley, Lumi Pollack
By Valerie Kalfrin
Sixteen-year-old Vada (Jenna Ortega) loves cake pops and coffee on the way to high school, singing loudly, and making jokes about bodily functions. Less than 10 minutes into “The Fallout” (2021), she’s in the school restroom when gunshots break out, forcing her and Mia (Maddie Ziegler), fixing her makeup at the mirror, to hide in a stall and hope they’ll survive.
Writer-director Megan Park won the Narrative Feature Competition at SXSW Online 2021 for this powerful drama that largely ignores the carnage of such an event to highlight the teens’ trauma and tenuous recovery. Vada and Mia aren’t the same after that day. Neither is Quinton (Niles Fitch, TV’s “This Is Us”), who raced into the bathroom after seeing the shooter kill his brother.
Park isn’t interested in the gunman, a name that we hear but a face we never see. We don’t learn his motives or hear much debate about school safety or firearms, either; that’s not the point. Rather, “The Fallout” mostly follows Vada as she struggles to act how she thinks she should while she has no idea what that should be.
No one in her life has the words or the skills to handle what’s happened. Vada’s parents (John Ortiz, “Ad Astra,” and Julie Bowen, TV’s “Modern Family”) stand up from the dining table when she does, asking how she’s feeling. They’re loving, well-meaning, and frustratingly helpless. They send her to a therapist (Shailene Woodley, TV’s “Big Little Lies”).
Vada’s younger sister, Amelia (Lumi Pollack), wants to be near her yet give her space. Nick (Will Ropp, “The Way Back”), who shared coffee and jokes with Vada that morning, embraces activism, wanting to find a purpose in all of this. Meanwhile, Quinton, Mia, and Vada form their own shorthand, bonded over their moments together. Park shows their heartfelt texts while life goes on obliviously around them. When Quinton fumbles for words, Vada hugs him, speaking volumes.
The crux of the film becomes the friendship between Vada and Mia, who didn’t know each other before but now trust each other like no one else. Ortega, the voice of Princess Isabel on Disney’s “Elena of Avalor,” and Ziegler, a dancer unfortunately cast in “Music,” have a natural warmth and believable rapport, switching from deflecting humor to touching honesty.
“The Fallout” is the feature debut for Park, who has helmed videos for Janelle Monae and Billie Eilish. She frames Vada and Mia in medium shots that put the audience at their level as they experiment with drinking, drugs, and sex; order takeout; and have facials in the pool and heart-to-heart chats in the sauna — all to feel something beyond emptiness. The action isn’t salacious or cautionary. It just is — coping by grasping at anything to reconcile something impossible to comprehend.
“The Fallout” has no easy answers or tidy resolution, all the more appropriate considering the subject matter. Trauma is ongoing and quietly devastating. While there’s one tragedy in the lives lost that day, there’s another in Vada’s loss of safety and security. It’s no small victory for her to regain her sense of self.