‘The Fallout’: Film Review | SXSW 2021

Jenna Ortega, Maddie Ziegler and Niles Fitch play California high schoolers brought together by their shared experience during a shooting rampage.

It’s a horrendous sign of the times that the school shooting is already a well-traveled movie trope. Many films, among them Elephant, And Then I Go and We Need to Talk About Kevin, have explored the (male) killers’ alienation from family and peers, and the lead-up to their attacks. In its overstuffed way, Vox Lux concerned the flip side, a young woman who witnessed a classroom murder. With the astute and affecting The Fallout, writer-director Megan Park zeros in on a female student’s struggle to find her footing after surviving a campus massacre.

Among films delving into this charged territory, Park’s stands apart in its combination of low-key intimacy and, as the title suggests, its unwavering focus on the aftermath. Only three adults appear onscreen, their roles key but decidedly supporting in the teen-centric drama, which foregrounds a quintet of superb young actors, led by Jenna Ortega.

The Fallout

The Bottom Line

Sensitive and piercing.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Cast: Jenna Ortega, Maddie Ziegler, Niles Fitch, Will Ropp, Lumi Pollack, John Ortiz, Julie Bowen, Shailene Woodley
Director-screenwriter: Megan Park

1 hour 34 minutes

The California suburb where Park has set her debut feature is multicultural and privileged. Kids don’t want for comfort, though some of them make do with absentee parents. Sixteen-year-old Vada (Ortega) doesn’t fall into the latter category; her folks are, as she tells a friend, “good parents.” She’s a sharp-witted high schooler who basically falls out of bed in the morning, barely brushing her hair, in contrast to the carefully made-up girliness of her whip-smart younger sister, Amelia (an impressive Lumi Pollack). Their differences notwithstanding, they have a close bond. When Amelia finds herself in need, the person she texts is her big sister.

But soon Vada goes through something that upends every aspect of her life and creates distance in her closest relationships. Shots ring out in her school, and for six terrifying minutes she cowers in a bathroom stall with two students she knows only by sight: the glamorous Mia (Maddie Ziegler) — about whom she’d just been texting something snarky to her best friend, Nick (Will Ropp) — and Quinton (Niles Fitch, of This Is Us), who stumbles into the girls’ bathroom covered in blood, having just witnessed his brother being shot.

The sight of Quinton a few scenes later, greeting Vada and Mia at his brother’s funeral, is heartbreaking. He’s a lanky teen in a grown-up’s suit. Fitch’s performance conveys wrenching depths in Quinton’s silences as well as between the conversational lines. At every turn, the youth and innocence of Park’s characters pierce the smooth suburban surface.

The helmer, who has directed videos for Billie Eilish, among others, dips into the bag of song-driven music-video maneuvers only once, and though that scene advances the story to a degree, it does stick out in this quiet drama. (The film’s excellent, understated score is by Finneas O’Connell, Eilish’s producer and brother.) Mainly Park lets her actors interact, their humor deadpan, their pain unfathomable, their hormones surging and their flirtations halting.

Vada in particular excels at playing chill and deflecting — and Ortega’s beautifully nuanced turn understands the nothing-to-look-at-here façade and the chinks in the armor. We feel the sting of resentment when she watches her mother and sister being silly in the kitchen; that sort of spontaneity is now foreign to her. Vada’s defense mechanisms give way to something openhearted as she and Mia gravitate toward each other. Via text and video chats and then IRL, at the gated property where Mia essentially lives alone, they hold the world at bay, putting off their return to school as long as their parents let them.

For Mia, that means indefinitely. Her fathers, both artists, are away in Japan — and apparently her traumatic experience isn’t enough to bring even one of them back home. They’re almost always gone, she notes over her ever-present glass of wine, leaving her to enjoy the Jacuzzi, pool and sauna when she isn’t in school or attending dance class. As Vada blurts out during their awkward getting-to-know-you phase, Mia is much gentler than the sexualized image she projects in the dance videos she posts. Vada might also be figuring out that the girl she’s long considered out of her league with her 82,000 Instagram followers is in truth friendless and lonely.

This is no poor-little-rich-girl cliché. Actress-dancer Ziegler, a veteran of Sia videos (and also a star of the musician’s widely panned feature Music), fully inhabits the role. Soulful and intelligent, Mia is practiced in hiding her ache; the small charade she enacts the first time she welcomes Vada to her house is a brilliant bit of screenwriting that tells us everything in a few wordless seconds.

Vada’s parents — her “white and anxious” mother (Julie Bowen) and Latino dad-of-few-words (John Ortiz) — vacillate between hyper-attentive hovering and stepping back to give her space. It takes a surprisingly long time, in terms of the movie’s running time, before they send her to therapy. The Fallout, fortunately, is not a therapy film. And precisely because Park is not interested in the orthodoxy of therapy-speak, the two psychotherapy sessions she includes are especially potent, with a strong and steadying Shailene Woodley defying movie-psychologist stereotypes. (So too do her character’s office and clothing; here and throughout the film, the production design by Justin Dragonas and Tasha Goldthwait’s costumes are lived-in and, however upscale, unshowy.)

The Fallout doesn’t pretend there are easy answers for Vada. She wakes in the dark from nightmares, panicked and shaking. Her daytime hours drift into a suburban dreamscape of paused time and drug experimentation. Her withdrawal exasperates Nick, her former partner in wiseass-ery. Rather than internalizing the trauma, he becomes an antigun activist, and a pitch-perfect Ropp captures his passion as well as his do-gooder self-righteousness.

With Kristen Correll’s intimate lensing and Jennifer Lee’s dexterous editing, Park traces a trajectory that can be faltering or headlong, from that harrowing bathroom-stall scene through Vada’s disastrous first day back at school and beyond. The filmmaker deftly underscores the way violence has ruptured her characters’ sheltered orbits, the awful disconnect at her story’s core. After the shooting, Vada gradually gathers a collection of memorial programs and places these tributes to her murdered classmates in a box that she keeps in her bedroom. It’s a spacious room, adorned, disconcertingly, with fairy lights. As glib as these smart teens can be, they’re not quite out of childhood, flailing their way toward some kind of grace.

Full credits

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Production companies: Clear Horizon and SSS Entertainment in association with SSS Film Capital, 828 Media Capital, Good Pals and Mind the Gap Productions
Cast: Jenna Ortega, Maddie Ziegler, Niles Fitch, Will Ropp, Lumi Pollack, John Ortiz, Julie Bowen, Shailene Woodley
Director-screenwriter: Megan Park
Producers: David Brown, Shaun Sanghani, Rebecca Miller, Cara Shine, Todd Lundbohm, Giulia Prenna, Joannie Burstein
Executive producers: Andrew Carlberg, Justin Dragonas, Christina Lundbohm, Greg Young, Mark Andrews, Stephanie Denton
Director of photography: Kristen Correll
Production designer: Justin Dragonas
Costume designer: Tasha Goldthwait
Editor: Jennifer Lee
Composer: Finneas O'Connell
Casting directors: Marisol Roncali, Chelsea Ellis Bloch
Sales: ICM Partners, Clear Horizon

1 hour 34 minutes