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
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
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.