A film review by Craig J. Koban February 9, 2022

THE FALLOUT jjjj

2022, R, 91 mins.

 

Jenna Ortega as Vega  /  Maddie Ziegler as Mia  /   Will Ropp as Nick  /  Lumi Pollack as Amelia  /  Niles Finch as Quinton

 

Written and directed by Megan Park 

ORIGINAL FILM

I typically loathe films about youth culture that are too clean cut and saccharine for their own good, or ones that show their adolescent protagonists as being assured and smart enough to have answers for all of life's nagging questions.  

The new HBO Max (or Crave TV in Canada) Gen Z high school drama THE FALLOUT is one of the few films about teen culture that understands that the world can viciously conspire against lost souls, leaving them in pitiful states of despair and with answers hopelessly out of reach.  Written and directed with a keenly empathetic and observant eye by Megan Park (making her feature film debut), THE FALLOUT also emerges as a brutally raw, but sensitively rendered coming of age tale that taps into the horrible complexities of shared grief after hellish trauma, and it does so by not holding either the character's or audience's hands in the process.  Not since Bo Burnham's brilliant EIGHTH GRADE has a drama about the trials and tribulations of teens been made with such uncommon care and depth. 

Park opens her film in such a fairly nonchalant fashion that it initially feels that it's going to be yet another on a long list of perfunctory high school comedies, which makes the abrupt tonal about-face it takes soon afterwards all the more of a forceful gut punch.  We witness two besties in Vada (Jenna Ortega) and Nick (Will Ropp) on their way to school during what appears to be an ordinary day of monotonous routine.  Upon arrival at school Vada receives a rather urgent text message from her younger sister in Amelia (Lumi Pollack), who reveals to her that she just got her first period.  Reassuring her sibling that everything will be fine, Vada proceeds to a nearby bathroom in hopes of meeting up with her.  The only one there, though, is the uber popular social media star dancer, Mia (Maddie Ziegler), who doesn't seem too interested in shooting the breeze with Vada.  This super awkward exchange is short lived when both hear a gunshot from outside the bathroom...then more...followed by even more.   

Fearing for their lives, Vada and Mia flee to a nearby bathroom stall in hopes of hiding from the unknown and unseen mass shooter.  Another student in Quinton (Niles Fitch) barges into the bathroom, covered in blood (but not his own) and seeks shelter with Vada and Mia.  What then ensues is one of the most unnervingly tense sequences in recent movie memory: All three traumatized students hunker down in the tiny bathroom stall, hold on to one another, and try to remain as quiet, still, and calm as they possibly can while a shooting rampage continues to occur on the outside.  In a wise move, Park never shows the shooter or the shooting, but lingers her camera on these three poor kids hoping to not become the next targeted prey.  In the aftermath, this trio tries to process what has happened as best as they can, but in most respects they're all suffering and unable to make sense of something so unendingly senseless.  Vada and Mia opt to not return to school for the foreseeable future, whereas Nick decides to become a lightning rod of action and begins an anti-gun campaign to ensure that what happened never happens again. 

 

 

From here it seems like the story trajectory of THE FALLOUT is fairly preordained, but the subtle genius of Park's choices is that she never takes to road most traveled approached here when it comes to navigating through her characters' mindsets while trying to process this unimaginable tragedy.  The majority of the film builds towards Vada and Mia's unlikely bond and newfound friendship.  In the beginning they're on two polar opposite ends of the popularity and status spectrum at their school, but their initially icy first meeting in the bathroom turns into the ultimate impromptu bonding moment when they held on to each other and for literal dear life in hopes of not being murdered like so many of their fellow classmates.  One interesting angle here is how Park presents a contrast in parents.  Vada's mother and father (played very well by Julie Bowen and John Ortiz) are there for her at any waking moment, but despite their good will and concern for her emotional well being she feels smothered by them.  Mia, on the other hand, has no family in town at all (her parents are inconveniently out of town), making her feel all the more alone and helpless.  Vada does see a therapist at her parent's insistence (Shailene Woodley), but Vada finds that she's more comfortable and content while spending more intimate time with her new pal in Mia.   

Speaking of Mia, it would have been so easy for a lesser writer/director to paint this character in familiar strokes as the social media and Insta-obsessed mean girl that cares for very little outside of her own bubble of self-importance.  What's compelling here is that, yes, this girl is indeed a media sensation with nearly 100,000 followers on Instagram that admire her slick dance skills and moves, but she emerges here as a real vulnerable, flesh and blood human being that struggles to acclimate to her post-shooting world.  Her outlet for processing her grief is Vada, who's equally tormented by what they both experienced and also has difficulty processing the thorny question of what to do next.  They do what, I think, real teens would do when facing the uncertainties of coping: They flirt with drugs, alcohol, and even their own sexuality...and just about anything that they think will numb their perpetual pain.  They don't act out aggressively or out of reckless spite or to purposely alienate those around them.  No, they do so because they're - like so many others dealing with trauma - sometimes grasping at straws when it comes to things that they think will help them, albeit fleetingly and with little long-term benefit.  In the moment, though, it's all they feel they can do.   

I loved how refreshingly lacking in answers this film is when it comes to these characters finding, well, answers.  THE FALLOUT might be about young adult culture and their fragile response mechanisms when dealing with loss and mass death, but Park's film speaks to certain universal truths about how people from various walks of life explore tragedy in different ways.  No one individual responds to and deals with death in the same manner, and for teens this grapple is even more unwieldy.  Park never lets her film get distractingly political when it comes to focusing on gun violence and mass school shootings that nightmarishly seem to dominate headlines every year, but instead she deals with how gun violence at schools shapes the minds - for better or worse - of those that live through it.  For people like Vada and Mia, getting back to a semblance of normalcy might be an impossibility, with Vada in particular cringing at the very idea of heading back to class.  In one of the film's unexpectedly funnier sequences, she crashes and burns on ecstasy while in class on one of her first days back.  We laugh with Vada during this bizarre setback on her road to emotional recovery, but THE FALLOUT rarely, if ever, mocks these characters or judges them for their questionable choices.  Vada and Mia make many mistakes throughout the course of their respective recovery stages.  Most crucially, these are flawed people that fumble their way through grief.  It's not an easy process at all. 

Park has cast this film sensationally well.  These teen characters are played by actual teen actors, and its shows.  Her insistence her on using age appropriate actors here is so welcoming, especially for how so many Hollywood productions for decades have used twenty and thirtysomething actors to laughably pass as teens.  Maddie Zielger achieves a major performance miracle here by allowing us to understand and see Mia as a young woman that - despite her social media street cred and fame - has real deep seeded insecurities about who she is and what her purpose is in life.  She's complimented pitch perfectly by Jenna Ortega, who arguably gives the film's greatest breakout performance as Vada.  This is a tricky character in the sense that she's perpetually stating to everyone around her that she's okay and content, but deep down she's anything but, which begins to emotionally break her down with each new crushing day.  Like Mia, she too is susceptible even when she puts on a false facade of strength, but that charade ultimately gets the better of her and impedes her ability to achieve any positive mental breakthroughs.  Plus, Vada and Mia embody a whole new and unfortunate generation of kids that (a) grow up with mass school shootings and (b) struggle to comprehend how to live as survivors of said violence.  No more is this apparent in the film's closing scene, which reminds its characters - and us - that there may simply be no way to get away from unimaginable tragedies like this moving forward. 

The underlining message of THE FALLOUT is simple: You can try to move on and heal the best that you can, but that recovery road is paved with multiple unforeseen roadblocks.  And for some, that journey is a muddled process with no immediate end.  This is a tremendous accomplishment for the filmmaking novice in Park, who manages to frame her work in such a manner that pays respect to her troubled youth characters without condescending them or trivializing their healing journeys.  When THE FALLOUT premiered way back at the South by Southwest Film festival last year it was greeted with critical acclaimed.  I can now see why.  Itís very early in our young year, but not too early to label this as a special film and an easy Best of 2022 candidate. 

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