the fallout

Jenna Ortega as "Vada" and Maddie Ziegler as "Mia" in "The Fallout."

There was a clear standout from SXSW Online 2021: Megan Park's "The Fallout." The film earned the grand jury award in the narrative feature competition, and it's one that stays with you long after you watch it.

Park tackles a very sensitive topic — a school shooting — that, unfortunately, has become a common headline over the past few years. Hollywood has also put out a few movies on it through the years, often focusing on what leads up to the tragedy ("Elephant" and "We Need To Talk About Kevin").

"The Fallout" stands apart by focusing on, as its title suggests, what happens after one survives a horrific shooting. The trauma associated with seeing friends, classmates and teachers die is unimaginable to those who haven't lived through a similar event, but Park attempts to explore it through one young woman's feelings and relationships.

Sixteen-year-old Vada (Jenna Ortega) is your typical Gen Z teenager. She throws on whatever for school (and still looks insanely fashionable), has a fun, snarky best friend Nick (Will Ropp) and has a cute relationship with her younger sister, Amelia (Lumi Pollack).

Then, in an instant, everything changes. Vada, in the girls' bathroom with the glamorous girl in school, Mia (Maddie Ziegler), hears one gun shot. Then another. And then several at once. The two cower in a bathroom stall, wondering if the shooter will find them. Soon they're joined by another student, Quinton (Niles Fitch), who is covered in blood and just saw his brother get shot. 

Their lives changed in six minutes, and for Vada, that means every fiber of her being has come crashing down.

In the days that follow, more information is learned about the shooter, a fellow classmate, and students recuperate in their own ways. Some are ready to go back to school, while others, such as Vada and Mia, are not. They develop a friendship — there's a bond that naturally forms between the two after experiencing a horrific moment together — and they do whatever they can to not think or talk about those six minutes. They lounge around in Mia's lavish home, drink alcohol and even turn to drugs.

At the same time, Vada begins to distance herself from her family, avoiding deep conversations and turning her little sister away, which affects Amelia more and more. Her parents, struggling to help their daughter, suggest she see a therapist, but Vada doesn't seem ready to open up. She even loses her close bond with Nick, who has become an anti-gun advocate and doesn't seem to have the time or energy to deal with Vada's struggles.

Everyone seems to have moved on in some way, even Quinton who ultimately lost his brother, but Vada just can't spring back into the rhythm she had before. When she does return to school, her anxiety comes out. Needing to use the restroom, she finds herself heading toward the same one she hid in, but decides the memory is too much to bear. 

And that's exactly what Park wants to show — those feelings, those terrifying moments that we haven't seen before and that aren't talked about much. Vada wakes up often in the middle of the night, covered in sweat from a nightmare. Rather than talk about these experiences, it's easier to drink them away and forget about them momentarily. 

Ortega masterfully captures the emotions, the fear and deflection that encompasses this character. She draws you in the moment you see her and takes you on an emotional rollercoaster that doesn't seem to end. Just when you think she's back on her feet, the final scene accurately shows the dark world we live in today, and makes you think about what goes through a shooting survivor's mind when another tragedy happens. Ziegler, more known for her dancing abilities, also does a great job commanding her performance as the girl everyone thinks is so popular online who really is so alone in this troubling time. It's a great bond that forms between the two, even if their coping mechanisms might not be the healthiest for them in the long run. 

It's a heartbreaking and sad reality that Park captures, but she handles the trauma and sensitivity of the subject gracefully. "The Fallout" could be the start of a new conversation — how do we help shooting victims and survivors, especially students, process this event that undeniably changed their lives forever? What are the right ways to approach it? As "The Fallout" suggests, there's no easy answer, but help is out there.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.