SXSW Film Review: The Fallout
Megan Park turns her Secret Life days to great effect
By Jenny Nulf,
3:48PM, Thu. Mar. 18, 2021
Juice WRLD’s “Conversations” looms over the opening of The Fallout. Director Megan Park is no stranger to the after-school teen special, having starred in The Secret Life of an American Teenager, and the song’s opening lines paint the scene: “The devil hit my phone he wanna talk, but I’m not really up for conversations.”
Vada (Jenna Ortega), bouncing along in her best friend Nick’s (Will Ropp) car, heads to school like it’s any other day. But it’s not. A school shooting shatters her world. Trapped in the bathroom stall hiding with pretty girl Mia (Maddie Ziegler), gun shots echo across the tile in a harrowing scene. Another student, Quinton (Niles Fitch), rushes in, blood staining his shirt because his brother was shot. Soon sirens blare from outside, and the immediate horror is over.
It’s a plot that naturally leans into melodrama and smothering exposition, but Park seemingly took notes from her days on The Secret Life and instead gives her characters space and time to breath, mourn, and sort through their pain. Ortega is graceful as Vada, able to balance fear, grief, and physical comedy. In the aftermath, Vada curls up in beds, both alone and next to Mia, her new anchor who shares her trauma. In a moment of levity and an attempt to mentally float through the day, Vada takes E, and channels Jaques Tati on the stairs of her high school. Her effervescent performance is sublime, a perfect vessel for the film to find equilibrium.
Park creates modern day teenage characters that feel natural, and very real, which prevents her film from falling into magnetic crevice of its hot button issue. The Fallout quietly subverts most teen drama clichés, which fall in line with its generation of characters. These teenagers are queer, respectful of each other’s sexual orientation, and confidently understand how their own bodies work. It doesn’t feel like an adult pretending to understand a teenager’s mindset, Park organically finds the truth in her characters.
The wordless moments are what really gives The Fallout its strength. In a scene where Vada meets up with Quinton after his brother’s funeral for a lunch date, she’s struggles to find her voice. He’s grieving, in need of a friend, and there is nothing she can say that won’t come out flat. But she doesn’t have to speak, because sometimes that is hard and feels meaningless, so she abruptly stands, putting out her arms for an awkward hug that he accepts, relieved.
For such a strong debut, the last minutes of The Fallout sting a bit. The final alert on Vada’s phone feels like overkill. Of course, this is still The Fallout’s purpose: to make the viewer understand the weight teenagers carry around in the present day, and it successfully suffocates, leaving no room for air.
Narrative Feature Competition