Remember when the most scary thing about high school used to be navigating the social circles and finding your people? If only that remained. It starts as a normal day for high schooler Vada (Jenna Ortega). She gets picked up by best friend, Nick (Will Ropp), they get cake pops before their first class, she pops out of class to answer a text from her little sister, Amelia (Lumi Pollack).
On her way back to class, Vada makes a stop in the restroom, where she comes across one of the more popular people in the school, Mia (Maddie Ziegler), tending to her makeup before picture day. Spontaneously, they hear a foreign noise. First singular, then rapid. This is a school shooting. This one is over as quickly as it began, but the lingering effects it will forever have on Vada and Mia will sadly never dissipate.
The Fallout is a full-length debut for writer and director Megan Park, who has most of her experience by way of shorts and music videos. Her experience speaking to the latter is well utilized here; licensed music and particularly a score courtesy of composer Finneas O’Connell both play a wonderful part in capturing that teenage carefree-ness Vada and Mia are trying to hold on to, as well as highlighting the uncomfortable ambiguity they’re trying to wade through.
As for the moment itself that everything reacts off of, Park makes the best decision to not show the active incident, choosing to instead go off of sound and the reactions of Vada, Mia, and Quinton (Niles Fitch) another school teen dealing with the loss of his brother as he narrowly escapes harm. The tight framing of all three huddled together in the bathroom stall anxiously waiting for the shooting to stop is harrowing, and does way more from an emotional perspective than seeing the event through the eyes of the instigator.
The Fallout is very much a character study as opposed to a thorough plot, assessing how people grieve and the actions they take to re-center themselves. At times, mainly in the middle, the movie feels more of a connection of montages rather than a detailed and progressive plotting of scenes, but Park and co. find the through line in the final act, showcasing a tenderness that offers optimism while not straying away from the fact that there is no true happy ending to what these characters have experienced, driven home by an ending that is all too sobering.
Industry constants John Ortiz, Shailine Woodley, and Julie Bowen all appear in adequate supporting roles a step above glorified cameos. That said, this is a film dominated by young people. Ziegler, growing as an actress, doesn’t quite have the same command as Ortega, though carries presence. Niles does great emotionally charged work in being the third high schooler in which we see how he manages grief. But Ortega is the one of which this universe revolves around, and the youngster has shown in quick order that she’s in possession of emoting anything on the emotional spectrum, be it humor, awkwardness, fear, abrasiveness, etc. Don’t sleep on Pollack though, as a scene she shares with Ortega is easily the most touching thing I’ve seen all year to this point in 2022.
Could 2022 be a truly breakout year for the young actress Ortega? We aren’t even two full months into the new year, but the 19 year-old has been featured prominently in two features beginning with January’s Scream and now The Fallout, with two seemingly eclectic horror movies to follow in X and Studio 666. She clearly has a love for that genre, but The Fallout—grounded itself in its horror—serves as a palette cleanser, delving (somewhat) deep into the psyche following a tragedy.
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