The Movie Waffler SXSW 2021 Review - THE FALLOUT | The Movie Waffler

SXSW 2021 Review - THE FALLOUT

the fallout review
Two high school students form a bond in the aftermath of surviving a school shooting.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Megan Park

Starring: Jenna Ortega, Maddie Ziegler, Niles Fitch, Will Ropp, Lumi Pollack, John Ortiz, Julie Bowen, Shailene Woodley

the fallout poster

There's a moment in The Fallout where Vada Cavell (Jenna Ortega), struggling with the traumatic aftermath of a school shooting, looks simultaneously bored, numb and frustrated while listening to a teacher lead a class on how to respond to an active attack. The big, bold directives on the board read "Run Hide Fight."

These three words form the name of a recently released, poorly made movie from right-wing provocateur Ben Shapiro’s production company The Daily Wire, which was described by our critic as “one of the most morally reprehensible movies I've had the misfortune to endure for quite some time.” While Run Hide Fight was offensive and abhorrent in depicting how high school kids should respond to such a distressing event, The Fallout is one of the most sensitive, nuanced and compelling features centred on the issue. It does not make the same mistake of drawing up an ugly handbook on what to do and is instead focused on the day-to-day lives of those affected by the tragedy.

the fallout review

The emotional journey is threaded across the connections between Jenna and her friends and family, who are all impacted in various ways. The key relationship to the film’s theme is between Jenna and her new friend Mia Reed (Maddie Ziegler). At the outset of the film, the two are together in the school’s restroom where Mia is applying makeup while a beady-eyed Jenna texts her friends to talk about the girl applying so much makeup. The subtext is clear: Jenna bitterly views this tall blonde girl as the queen bee, her heightened self-esteem snapshotted in this moment.

They’re then drawn together in the face of death when flurries of gunshots ring out. The pair jump in a cubicle together to hide until the emergency stops. This shared moment manifests as an immediate bond and Jenna learns that Mia’s public image is not her personal image as they get to know one another, relishing each other’s company especially when they need an outlet to discuss the traumas they now live with, including successive nightmares. Through the strong relationship between Mia and Jenna, two individuals who may never have been in the same orbit outside of school, the message is clear: no matter our biological and sociological differences, humans have a lot more in common with each other than we may think, and we are stronger when we band together. It may sound trite or platitudinous, but there are forces that try to divide people every day, so the moral is vital.

the fallout review

And that’s just one strand of Jenna’s life: there’s also her unique relationships with her parents (played by the wonderful Julie Bowen and John Ortiz); her best friend Nick (Will Ropp); a boy called Quinton (Niles Fitch) who she met in the neighbouring bathroom stall, where he fled with blood on his shirt after trying to save his brother; and her therapist Anna (Shailene Woodley), who is obviously the most incisive in deconstructing PTSD. The study of Jenna’s character remarkably captures the kaleidoscope of life after such a tragedy: the emotional defeat, the seek for escapism, the moments of joy found through intimate connection, the learning of gratitude.

Performances are terrific across the board, guided by Megan Park’s talents as both an amazing writer and director. The filmmaker creates a lot of room for her actors to explore and is seemingly generous around the script – sometimes, the dialogue is so natural that it sounds improvised. Ortega is sublime, particularly impressive to me because I just saw her other new film, the Netflix comedy Yes Day, and recognise her great range as a performer across two very different projects.

the fallout review

This is a very well-made film with a moving score by Billie Eilish’s brother Finneas, an amazing talent in his own right, and effective use of songs by Gen Z artists including Juice WRLD and Ashnikko. Great use of lighting and close-ups express a striking cinematic look that melts the dynamic, swirling cinematography of Trey Edwards Shults’s Waves with the documentary aesthetics of Friday Night Lights, both of which happen to be two of my favourite contemporary narratives of American youth. The Fallout follows their lineage of telling a remarkable story about an important modern subject through amazing character work, topped off by the most crucial ending it could have conceived.

The Fallout played online at the SXSW Film Festival 2021.

2021 movie reviews