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‘The Fallout’ an emotional exploration of trauma’s aftermath

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So much of our storytelling is built around traumas and how we manage them. Some of those traumas are insular, personal. Others are writ large, part of a societal concern. And still others – perhaps the most complicated of all – are the ones that exist in the overlap between those two extremes, traumas that are both deeply personal and undeniably widespread.

“The Fallout,” newly streaming on HBO Max, attempts to delve into just such a complex trauma. Written and directed by Megan Park in her feature debut, it follows a young woman as she struggles through the aftermath of a mass shooting at her school. We watch as she tries to process what happened even as others find ways to move forward and move on … and some of her coping mechanisms prove to be a bit self-destructive, even as her loved ones try to help.

It’s a striking and emotionally powerful film, well-crafted and almost shockingly self-assured work from a writer-director making her feature debut. It is honest without being strident and emotionally engaging without being cloying, rife with excellent performances. The end result is a film that will stay with the viewer long after its vivid, visceral conclusion gives way to rolling credits.

Vada Cavell (Jenna Ortega) is a fairly typical high school student. She’s smart and sarcastic with an offbeat sense of style. She and her best friend Nick (Will Ropp) have a sort of banter-y quip-laden dynamic. Vada’s got a loving family as well – dad Carlos (John Ortiz), mom Patricia (Julie Bowen) and sweetly annoying little sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack). All in all, a pretty solid life.

But it all gets upended in just six minutes.

Vada gets an emergency text from her little sister during class one day. She goes to the bathroom to take it – the 911 is about Amelia’s first period – and runs into popular girl and nascent social media influencer Mia (Maddie Ziegler). The two are there when, suddenly, the sounds of gunshots and screams fill the hall. They immediately run to a stall and hide. Another student – a boy named Quinton (Niles Fitch) – rushes in and hides alongside them. He’s covered in blood, but it isn’t his. It’s his brother’s.

And just like that, nothing is the same.

Vada isolates herself from her family – they gently try to engage, but mostly allow her to just be. She stops going to school. And she finds herself struggling to process what has happened to her. So many seem to be moving forward – Nick is driven to activism, for instance – while she feels stuck in neutral. In truth, the kindred spirit she finds is Mia; the two start spending most of their time together, the depth of connection accelerated by their shared trauma. However, the ways in which they spend their time aren’t always the healthiest.

Slowly, Vada tries to rediscover normality. She sees a therapist (Shailene Woodley). She goes back to school. But even these small steps forward are offset by steps back – Vada soon finds herself losing connection to so many of the people who matter most to her, but even as she seeks to make progress, the divide proves ever-difficult to bridge.

A movie like “The Fallout” requires a great deal of delicacy. The filmmakers have to strike just the right balance when dealing with such charged subject matter; if you’re off the mark just a bit, you get a film that is too preachy or too dismissive or too insensitive or too earnest. Seriously – there are a LOT of ways for a movie like this to go wrong. And yet, Park avoids them all. It would be a remarkable feat for any director, but for a young filmmaker making her feature debut (as director AND screenwriter, to boot), it is absolutely incredible.

It’s a striking film in so many ways. Park finds so many ways to evoke emotional morass and ethical complexity, all through Vada’s eyes. We see her terror and her fear and her dissociation in every frame, thanks to some evocative visual choices and a collection of relationship dynamics absolutely stuffed with verisimilitude.

That’s really the biggest accomplishment in a film made of big accomplishments, actually – the fact that all of these relationships feel real. There’s nothing artificial or forced about the interpersonal interactions that serve as the center of “The Fallout.” You know people like this. Hell, you may well have BEEN people like this. And to watch as these very real-seeming relationships are besieged by this onslaught of emotional trauma – it’s heartbreaking and extremely powerful.

Jenna Ortega gives an absolutely exceptional performance as Vada. She is the core of the film, with her experience serving as the gravitational center of the story. It is an incredibly demanding role, yet she occupies it with grace and fervor. There is a rawness to it all that should be impossible to convey, yet she does just that. She’s not alone, of course – and everyone else is excellent as well. Ziegler’s Mia provides a wonderful counterpoint to Vada’s experience, offering a glimpse at a different – but no less impactful – damage that needs healing. Ropp and Fitch are slightly less present, but both find ways to breathe life into different experiences and reactions to those experiences. Bowen, Ortiz and especially Pollack provide still another perspective, showing us the feelings of futility that can arise when we want to help but simply … can’t. At least, not in the way we want to.

“The Fallout” is a very good movie and, I would argue, an important movie as well – one with a message many people stand to hear. It is a frank exploration of the emotional aftermath of these tragedies that, sadly, continue to take place far too often. It’s a lot to take in, to be sure – there’s a trigger warning at the film’s beginning for a reason – so be wary, but also be open. It is also very powerful, both in ways that you’d expect and in ways that might surprise you.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 31 January 2022 16:04

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