It’s not easy to talk about these subjects. Especially when most people do not have first-hand experiences with these types of tragedies, nor are the political conversations we have on the matter particularly civil. I’m of course talking about the plague of school shootings that have descended upon the United States in the last twenty-five years. The Fallout, written and directed by Megan Park, looks to tackle this subject delicately. Unlike movies like Elephant (2003), one of the early movies in this unfortunate subgenre, the actual school shooting makes up only a brief part of the runtime.
The story takes place in California, as we meet high school besties Vada (Jenna Ortega) and Nick (Will Ropp). They clown around on their drive to school, while listening to Juice WRLD’s Conversations – which has to be an ominous sign. It seems like just a normal day, as Vada has to play big sister over the phone to her sibling Amelia (Lumi Pollack), before immediately having an impromptu encounter with her crush Mia (Maddie Ziegler). Then, the shots happen. It’s a startling shock that is so effectively uneasy, you’re relieved when the sequence is over. Vada survives that fateful day, and so does Mia. But the tragic occurrence bonds the two budding friends as they attempt to deal with the grief of their fallen classmates, as well as their lost sense of safety.
Vada’s reaction to the tragedy is one of confusion and yearning for stronger human connections, but that often comes at the expense of her family. She doesn’t recognize that her family needs to talk to her to process the event themselves. Instead, she spends her time hanging out with Mia, mostly in secret for reasons that are not entirely logical on her part. In addition, Vada reaches out to her classmate Quinton (Niles Fitch), who perhaps has lost as much as anyone during the shooting.
Meanwhile, Vada and Nick go on diverging paths. One shields themselves in bliss, while the other focuses their attention on finding actual solutions in our political system to enact change. But, The Fallout never takes a side on which path is the “right” path. Vada’s journey through alcohol and drug use is full of pitfalls, but her story ends with a hopeful message about emotional maturity overindulgence to shield yourself from pain. None of that is overtly political. But Nick’s initiative is treated with aplomb – not only is it productive, but it is also partially his coping mechanism. The movie, thankfully, doesn’t pretend to have a catch-all solution for its conflict. Instead, the remedy is what is best suited for the needs of the individual.
What Park has created is one of the most sympathetic snapshots of Gen Z ever put to film, drawing comparisons to Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (one of the best films of 2018). However, she accomplishes this without demonizing older generations. In fact, each character we meet, young and old, get their moments of humanity. One such scene, reminiscent of a similar moment in Waves (2019), sees Vada and her father abandoning their inhibitions to express their raw, unfiltered emotions. It’s a scene that fights the frustration of helplessness – if you can’t change the world, can you at least handle the way you feel about the world?
What helps us buy the emotions is how believable our time period is depicted. It seems like a simple thing to nail, but the use of abbreviations and gifs is on point. It’s also noteworthy how character masks their genuine emotions through a veneer of jovial text cliches. The only unrealistic aspect of it is there’s not a single character that abuses emoji use, and someone like Mia probably isn’t replying to texts as quickly as she does here.
Technology, and the comfort it’s meant to provide, are a consistent theme here. Characters are face timing on laptops as they’re going to sleep. The school adds metal detectors in the aftermath of the tragedy, but it only supplies a small semblance of security. Vada and Mia’s phone communication is just as important and therapeutic as their face-to-face encounters. It’s via Instagram that Vada learns key details of Mia’s interests, almost as if the latter is a local celebrity. But it’s unclear if technology is saving us from loneliness, or merely highlighting it. Our modern technology provides little comfort from the scary facts of life, and Park’s film consistently comes back to in-person interactions as the pathway to catharsis. The first time we see Vada and Amelia interact is by phone. But near the end of the movie, when the two siblings have to be honest about what they actually feel about each other, they both empty their thoughts amid whispers in a late-night confessional.
This is a game cast, all of which seem like they have chemistry and familiarity with each other. Jenna Ortega of course is the standout, soldiering through a role that requires her to be in every scene in the movie. Yet, not once does it become uninteresting to follow her mannerisms, line readings, or facial expressions – she owns the role. However, this doesn’t stop her from allowing Lumi Pollack to steal a few scenes. But Ortega makes every relationship, from familial to friendship to romantic, feel true.
Vada’s whirlwind maturation is about finding yourself planted in the reality of the present, after the tragic events of the past but not quite at the hopeful resolutions of the future. One character, while dealing with the loss of a sibling, even remarks, “He’s not gonna let me go back and be sad, he’s not gonna let me go forward and freak out.” The Fallout is about the frustration of living with a problem that seems unsolvable due to our impotence as a country. Sometimes it’s survival of the fittest, often it is survival of the fortunate, and neither edict seems fair.