By Laurie Coker
As a teacher who in her final two years of a long career found herself participating in active-shooter drills and watching the aftermath of school shooting, I hesitated to choose The Fallout as one of my SXSW Festival picks. A fellow critic encouraged me to take a look and it floored me, in good and bad ways. The Fallout starring Jenna Ortega, a talented young actress whose performance mesmerizes, is poignant, timely and terrifying in more ways than one. Director/screenwriter Megan Park creates a vividly real depiction of the collateral damage brought on by such an event, touching on survival guilt, fear, parental reactions, fighting back, moving forward, and falling apart.
Ortega stars play Vada Cavell, who cowers in a single bathroom stall with Instagram superstar Mia (Maddie Ziegler) and Quinton (Niles Fitch)—covered in his brother’s blood—while an active shooter fires on screaming students in the halls outside the bathroom. The film is not about the event itself, but rather, it is about how people react and move on with their lives. Through Vada’s eyes and actions, we see the aftermath of terror and how is can negatively impact some while motivating others to make changes. She suffers greatly and fights back with destructive behavior. While her friends seem to be moving on, except perhaps Mia, Vada struggles to find something, anything – drugs, sexual curiosity, lashing out at those she loves – to numb the pain.
Park obviously finds the subject matter as horrific as we all do and she holds no bars as she delves into her story – highlighting the deeply impacted emotions unleashed after such devastating events. She pushes back the lies and reveals the reality of the destruction that lives in the wake of loss of lives and loss of innocence. PTSD isn’t just a phenomenon that effects soldiers in war – in these frightening and uncertain times, our children are at risk. In her characters, Park condemns events that many have been desensitized to. The shootings do end, but the damage moves like tree roots through the lives of survivors and Park does not want us to forget.
Ortega, while not alone in this telling, affords viewers the opportunity to experience every feeling and cringe-worthy moment – like Vada peeing her pants on her first day back at school after she steps on a soda can that makes a frightening familiar popping sound. We watch hopelessly when Vada seeks out ways to disappear from the real world. It’s terrifying to watch and yet, the film earns an A. Park, Ortega and the talent ensemble cast, rightfully won the SXSW Jury award and is a must see.