Vada’s life doesn’t look that much different than that of any other American teenager: She loves spending time with her snarky best pal, she’s not super-serious about school but she’s still smart, she thinks her parents are kind of square but knows they love her, Starbucks is a major part of her diet, and much of her existence plays out on social media. Today, however, Vada’s life is going to change forever. In Megan Park’s empathetic and often heartbreaking directorial debut “The Fallout,” Vada (Jenna Ortega) starts another seemingly normal day, only for it to be destroyed by a horrific school shooting.
Park, an actress and singer who has steadily built up her directing bonafides with a variety of music videos (including Billie Eilish’s “Watch”) and a pair of short films, makes a big leap with “The Fallout,” taking on a major emotional undertaking for her first feature. It works. Vada is out of the classroom when the terror starts, unexpectedly trapped in a bathroom with the Instagram-famous Mia (Maddie Ziegler) and eventually a blood-soaked Quinton (Niles Fitch). Park’s handling of the tragedy is impressive, and as distant shots ring out — that Vada and Mia instantly recognize what’s happening forms one of the film’s most painful moments — the girls, and then Quinton, scramble for safety they know is not at all guaranteed.
The filmmaker’s aesthetic, a compelling blend of strong compositions (Park and cinematographer Kristen Correll show particular skill at overhead shots) and a social media-slick presentation, matches well with the tough material. Mostly, though, it captures the energy of the teenage experience — not just by way of on-screen texting (a lot of it, and most of it necessary and natural) or through sequences that often feel a touch too close to music video-issued idealism, but through Park’s obvious investment in the emotional life of her characters. Few sequences are as brutally effective as the shooting itself, but “The Fallout” has plenty of other emotional upheavals to work through over the course of 92 tight minutes. (A score from Finneas O’Connell adds still more young-skewing cred, though Park’s emotional acuity is the real main event here.)
While Vada struggles in the aftermath of the shooting, others in her orbit find different ways to act out their pain: Once-silly Nick (Will Ropp) becomes an overnight advocate for victims, while Quinton, who suffered the most obvious losses in the violence, emerges as perhaps the most emotionally stable. Vada’s parents don’t really know what to offer her, beyond space and a few visits to a therapist (played by Park’s former “Secret Life of the American Teenager” co-star Shailene Woodley in a very small role). Meanwhile, her beloved younger sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack) instantly turns from timid kid into an airheaded teenager, desperate for her big sister’s attention and willing to get it in the worst of ways.
There’s little holding Vada to her regular life, and so she drifts toward the people she expects most keenly understand what’s happening inside of her, especially Mia. The teen’s fathers are mostly missing, in-demand artists who are often “in Europe” or elsewhere, and who are either unaware of what’s happened to Mia or too emotionally disconnected to realize she might need them. We only ever see Mia through Vada’s eyes, first as a distant “influencer” who is something of a celebrity at their school, much later as a clearly traumatized youngster drowning herself in food, booze, drugs, and her halting friendship with Vada.
A former teenage actress herself, Park has lined up a strong cast of young performers and allowed them the chance to dig deep into tough material. Ortega is particularly moving as Vada, and Pollack turns in a sneakily layered turn as young Amelia. Casting Ziegler — herself a mostly known quantity in the social media world — as dancer Mia was a smart step by Park, and any lacking elements of Ziegler’s actual performance are buffed over by the audience’s real world knowledge of her.
As Vada continues to drift through life, Park and her star ably explore the physical manifestations of trauma, and while scenes of Vada waking up in a cold sweat and trembling in a bathtub at first seem like trite tropes, they evolve over time. Soon Vada is shaking so much and so often that she doesn’t even seem to notice it, but we do. Park is similarly sensitive to the emotional vagaries of enduring such an experience, and often punctuates moments of seeming grace and acceptance with darker revelations. She’s not interested in easy answers, and while “The Fallout” allows for lightness to occasionally emerge, the film never forgets the experience at its center, one that can never be fully forgotten.
“The Fallout” premiered at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. Universal Pictures will release it later this year.