The specter of school shootings has become such a seemingly common fear here in America that there’s not a school I know of that doesn’t have ‘active shooter drills’ to prepare students, some as young as preschool and kindergarten, for such a horrifying potential disaster.
‘The Fallout’, the new dramatic movie streaming on HBO Max, isn’t a guide on how to avoid or survive a school shooting, but it’s definitely a useful study on how teens deal with the after effects of such a devastating event.
The movie, written and directed by first time feature film maker Megan Park, opens with 16-year-old protagonist Vada going through the motions of the most mundane of California mornings. She brushes her teeth, takes a shower, rolls her eyes at her younger sister, stops at Starbucks with her gay friend Nick and eventually gets to class.
Then at school all hell breaks loose. Gunfire rings out in the hallway as Vada and a stranger named Mia, hide and huddle together in a bathroom stall praying they won’t be discovered by the unknown gunman.
What makes ‘The Fallout’ an intriguing film is that, unlike virtually every other movie on the topic, it steadfastly refuses to engage in any meaningful way with the contentious politics that surround school shootings.
There’s no anti-gun or pro-gun message delivered, or passionate cries for more money to treat the mentally-ill who would be deranged enough to shoot people at a school, or musings on how demented a culture must be to produce school shooters in the first place.
No, ‘The Fallout’ entirely eschews the political for the personal. The movie avoids those cliched and more conventional political narratives in favor of simply focusing on the drama of how a 16-year-old girl deals with the overwhelming trauma of surviving such a violent and heinous event.
To its credit, the film also never exploits its subject matter for titillation. For instance, the shooting is never shown and neither are the physical after effects of it. We never see kids being killed or bodies piled up. And the fictional shooter is an afterthought, as his name is only mentioned once, and his motive never addressed.
The best part of the film is Jenna Ortega (who was most recently seen in the new ‘Scream’ movie), who plays Vada and gives a vibrant and compelling performance. Ortega convincingly captures the awkward nature of a 16-year-old, as well as the disorienting effects of such a heavy, existential burden being thrust upon an innocent child.
Vada, like many victims of trauma, feels everything and nothing all at once. This manifests at first as numbness and lethargy. For instance, when her best friend Nick becomes one of those passionate activists you see on TV after a school shooting demanding change, this alienates Vada who struggles just to watch TV, never mind appear on it.
Vada then finds companionship with Mia, the pretty-girl, Instagram star she hid with in the bathroom during the shooting. Mia and Vada become attached at the hip as they try and navigate the tumultuous waters of their fear and emotions in an ocean of post-traumatic stress.
Not surprisingly, two 16-year-old girls left to their own devices as they try and come to grips with a tsunami of mental and emotional turmoil, make some pretty bad choices, but in context they are completely understandable and believable.
Like Ortega as Vada, Maddie Ziegler is very good as Mia, giving the rather shallow, one-dimensional character that was written, a great deal more depth on screen.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast are less than spectacular. In fact, some of them are distractingly bad.
For instance, Julie Bowen, of hit sitcom ‘Modern Family’ fame, is so miscast and out of step with the film that it’s painful to watch. Bowen can’t seem to shake her sitcom performance style to better fit a movie attempting to tackle a topic of such gravitas.
Another issue is writer/director Megan Park. ‘The Fallout’ is definitely a confident and solid first-time feature film, but it also highlights Park’s inexperience as a director. For example, the film at times struggles to find its tone and maintain it, often devolving into an insipid silliness, usually while Julie Bowen is on screen.
But to Park’s credit, ‘The Fallout’ is no polemic, as she doesn’t preach and she doesn’t pander with her movie. She also does a good job of discreetly contrasting American teen internet culture’s insidious vacuousness and vapidity against the intense existential angst born by peering into the deep void of death.
In addition, Park makes a solid but subtle case that American teen internet culture, with its narcissistic nihilism, is a type of soul-sucking trauma in and of itself.
And best of all, Park finishes ‘The Fallout’ with a flourish, as the ending is both simple and profound enough to elevate the movie and diminish its myriad of minor flaws.
As a dramatic study of a teen dealing with post-traumatic stress from a school shooting, ‘The Fallout’, despite its flaws, is a compelling and at times insightful movie, and the fact that it stays away from poisonous politics only makes it all the more worth watching.