‘The Fallout’: Stark teen film focuses not on school shooting, but on the aftermath
Wrenching at times, the movies knows when to weave in moments of warmth and humor.
The first few moments of “The Fallout” are straight out of the Breezy High School Movie Playbook, as we see our American teenage protagonist Vada shaking off the sleep to start her day, getting picked up by her longtime bestie for a ride to school, stopping at a Starbucks drive-through for caffeine and cake pops, asking a smart and informed question in class and then asking to be excused to go to the bathroom because her little sister has texted her and needs to talk right away.
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film written and directed by Megan Park. Rated R (for language throughout, and teen drug and alcohol use). Running time: 92 minutes. Available Thursday on HBO Max.
It’s just another day in the life for 16-year-old Vada (Jenna Ortega, recently seen in “Scream”), and the lightness continues when Vada enters the bathroom and sees the glamorous and sophisticated Mia (Maddie Ziegler) applying professional-level makeup, as Mia prepares for another day of posing for Instagram and dancing for Tik-Tok. The contrast between Vada in her oversized, baggy shorts and unlaced sneaks, and Mia, who looks like she’s about to go clubbing, couldn’t be more drastic.
Vada awkwardly attempts to make conversation, and Mia is about to respond, and that’s when they hear a POP, and then another POP, and then several more in rapid succession — and in those brief seconds, they realize there’s an active shooter in the school hallway, and they scramble to hide in a stall, shaking and clinging to each other and wondering if they’re about to die.
We’ve had so many school shootings in this country in the last quarter-century that fictionalized cinema about such tragedies has practically become a genre, from “Elephant” (2003) to “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011), from “Beautiful Boy” (2010) to last year’s “Mass.” The latest such film is “The Fallout,” from actor turned filmmaker Megan Park, and it’s a memorably stark and authentic work that is at times so gut-wrenching it’s almost unbearable — but Park deftly weaves in moments of warmth and humor and hope as well. This is a special film.
As Vada and Maddie huddle together in the stall, a third student named Quinton (Niles Fitch) barges in, and he’s covered with blood, and at first they’re terrified he’s the shooter, but the blood belongs to Quinton’s brother, who will not survive the day. “The Fallout” doesn’t linger on the crime scene; in fact, we never see the shootings, the killer or the victims. From that chilling opening sequence, we segue to the immediate aftermath — the days and then weeks following the shootings.
Vada’s worshipful younger sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack) is bursting with questions about what happened, while her well-meaning parents (Julie Bowen and David Ortiz) awkwardly hover about, alternating between pressing her to talk about her feelings and giving her too much space. Vada and Maddie reach out to each other, first via text and then in person, with Vada spending more and more time at Maddie’s spacious, beautifully decorated and gorgeous home. (Maddie’s two fathers are successful artists, and they spend a lot of time overseas, and they apparently didn’t think their daughter surviving a school shooting was emergency enough for either of them to return home.)
It takes a while for Vada and Maddie to trust one another; at first they’re more comfortable texting or video chatting than talking in person. (As you’d expect, there’s a constant flow of texting and other social media communication throughout the film, and it’s handled in a way that feels real and doesn’t take us out of the story.) But when Vada asks Maddie, in person, who she hangs out with at school and Maddie vaguely alludes to “lots of different people,” it’s clear this local “celebrity” with her 80,000 followers feels like an outcast and is a loner. A real friendship begins to develop.
With writer-director Park and cinematographer Kristen Correll mixing in a steady diet of overhead drone shots with intense close-ups of the expressive faces of Ortega, Ziegler, Pollack, et al., and with Finneas O’Connell providing a spiritually moving and beautiful score, “The Fallout” knows just when to add a dash of relative levity to the proceedings, e.g, when Vada thinks it’s a good idea to drop ecstasy on one of her first days back at school and winds up tripping and with her pen exploding all over her mouth, or when Vada finally comes clean with her mother about all the things she’s done and felt over the last few weeks, and Mom responds by draining a giant goblet of wine and then saying, OK, I’m ready to talk more about this.
Shailene Woodley delivers subtle and strong work in a minor but important role as Vada’s therapist. (The filmmakers wisely decided not to make this a Therapy Movie.) Will Ropp is also memorable as Vada’s best friend, Nick, who prior to the shootings was a wisecracking, snarky, happy-go-lucky sidekick, but is now dedicating himself to campaigning for change so this won’t happen again. (“Why do you think he did it?” Vada says of the shooter. “Is there ever a reason?” comes the somber reply from Nick.)
With Jenna Ortega turning in a grounded and deeply moving performance, “The Fallout” leaves us hoping Vada might be OK — but knowing she’ll never be the same. She wasn’t physically injured on that horrible day, but something was broken.