Where previous generations preferred neatly resolved stories, embracing films that reassured them that everything was under control, Gen Z movies aren’t afraid to leave things messy, as if to say it’s OK to feel overwhelmed. The same goes for television offerings such as “Euphoria” and “I May Destroy You,” which recognize that the world is a complex, flawed and deeply unfair place. Rather than sitting back and letting the more proactive, goal-oriented protagonists of classical Hollywood work out their problems, they invite audiences to see themselves on-screen, or else to identify with imperfect people.
Megan Park’s stellar feature debut, respectful how-to-deal drama “The Fallout,” marks yet another important step in this direction — away from story toward state of mind — a precedent for which can be found in mood-centric indies like “Garden State” and “Donnie Darko” almost two decades earlier. It’s a remarkable accomplishment: a film with the confidence to pose big questions, and the humility to leave them unanswered. If you can manage to see “The Fallout” without knowing what’s in store, that’s almost certainly the most effective way to experience it. (Spoilers will follow.)
After setting up what feels like just another high school movie, in which Vada (Jenna Ortega) and gay best friend Nick (Will Ropp) joke around en route to their morning classes, Park shocks us with a school shooting. The idea isn’t to trigger the audience but to show how a seemingly ordinary student like Vada can be destabilized by such an event.
Vada has just gotten an urgent text from her younger sister, Amelia (Lumi Pollack, whose child-actor precocity suggests Ariel Winter from ABC’s “Modern Family”), freaking out about her first period. Vada excuses herself from class and heads to the bathroom, where super-popular Mia (dancer Maddie Ziegler) is doing her makeup, when the first shots echo through the hallway.
Without hesitating, Vada beckons Mia into a bathroom stall, and they both climb up on the toilet to hide their feet from view. Another student — Quinton (Niles Fitch), covered in blood — barges in, and as soon as the other two are certain he’s not the shooter, they reach out and invite him into their hiding place. The camera hovers above the stall as the three hold their breath in a tense huddle. This moment of shared panic offers a bonding opportunity even “The Breakfast Club” can’t match, as the diverse trio attempts to process what has happened.
Vada doesn’t want to return to school, whereas the event ignites something in her friend Nick, who’d been so jokey in the earlier scene but now finds his purpose: He steps up and starts a campaign to ensure “this never happens again.” While Nick’s initiative is admirable, Vada’s reaction feels more plausible. She remains mostly numb, relating only to Mia and Quinton, and even then, each clearly has a slightly different way of coping — or not coping, as the case may be.
As both writer and director of “The Fallout,” former “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” actor Park has drawn important lessons from that show, which dealt with serious young-adult issues head-on. She insists on casting teens who look like real teens, as opposed to late-20s poseurs. When they speak, their personalities are convincingly their own (Ortega in particular seems to have found her voice). There’s no temptation to out-Diablo Cody other teen movies. Not that there’s anything wrong with whippersnapper repartee. It’s just that such dialogue inevitably calls attention to itself, whereas Park doesn’t want to undermine her film’s disconcerting subject matter.
Adolescents ought to take school safety for granted, but when an event like this erupts, how can anything go back to normal? On one hand, Vada wrestles with survivor’s guilt, while on the other, school itself now seems borderline unbearable. In a comical scene Park wisely doesn’t take too far, Vada opts to take ecstasy on one of her first days back in class.
To some, Vada’s situation may seem like a relic of a pre-coronavirus world, and yet, the movie’s underlying mental health concerns transfer over to issues real teens face coping with the pandemic — especially Vada’s efforts to rebuild social connections outside school when nothing matters the way it did before. Withholding judgment while depicting adolescence in an honest way, “The Fallout” allows Vada to fumble and make mistakes. Lying to her parents (Julie Bowen and Carlos Ortiz, both credibly supportive and concerned), Vada sneaks out to misbehave with Mia.
Far more than the mean-girl stereotype she might have seemed at first glance, Mia has more than 80,000 followers on Instagram but no one paying attention to her at home. (Text messaging, TikTok and other means of digital communication factor without making the film feel instantly dated.) Together, the traumatized teens act out with drugs, alcohol and sexual experimentation, determined either to feel something or to obliterate all sensation.
Whereas Mia’s folks are away when the shooting happens (and weirdly never resurface), Vada’s mom and dad are neither the source of her distress nor appropriately equipped to solve it. They want to respect their daughter’s boundaries, but ultimately decide to send her to a therapist (played by Shailene Woodley, Park’s “Secret Life” co-star, now nearly 30 and a smart choice for the role, coming across more as peer than parent). In two impactful scenes, the counselor gives Vada a chance to be vulnerable, pushing past the emotional shield her sarcasm provides.
That’s Park’s instinct as well, countering the ironic aloofness of recent indie films with sincerity. The director (who helmed Billie Eilish’s “Watch” and a handful of other hyper-stylized music videos) dials back many of the techniques that might put distance between her characters and the audience. Her goal isn’t to “fix” Vada by the end, but to set her on the course to recovery, which pays off in a triptych of terrific scenes — with her mother, father and kid sister — before the movie’s gut-punch ending. Instead of putting a bow on what’s come before, “The Fallout” validates our uncertainty, as if to say: It’s OK to be scared. You’re not alone.
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