Rating: 4 out of 5.

School shootings are a touchy topic for obvious reasons, covered to varying degrees of success in films like Elephant, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and The Dirties. 2021 Sundance Film Festival favorite, Mass, tackled this through the lens of the parents, and how they are affected emotionally. SXSW drama The Fallout similarly approaches shootings in a way we haven’t seen before: via the trauma of the survivors. Megan Park’s directorial debut does not glorify the violence in any way. Nary a mention of the shooter is to be found, nor is their gender specified. The focus on the survivors provides a singular viewpoint on tragedy in a way rarely touched upon.

In the wake of a terrible act of violence at her high school, Vada (Jenna Ortega) clings to connection from fellow survivor Mia (Maddie Zegler). Vada’s family and her gay BFF (Will Ropp) try their best to comprehend her pain, and be as present as they can. Vada’s numbness to the situation sends her down a dangerous path, one which threatens to smother her promising future.

Maddie Zegler and Jenna Ortega both deliver spectacular performances. Ortega, in particular, weaves stunning emotional depth from a script that takes Vada on drastic highs and lows. I loved the relationship Vada and Mia form through their shared personal damage. The two girls come from different backgrounds and hang in completely different social circles, brought together only through their shared experience. Niles Fitch as Quinton, whose brother was a victim of the shooting, is going through his own set of issues. Fitch shows a different side to his acting than seen in NBC’s This Is Us.

The shooting itself is never shown. We experience it through Vada’s eyes, told only through noise and screams. This approach deepens our connection to the trio of characters who survive this harrowing ordeal. Tender moments, like multiple funeral programs from the victims, and a sweet heart-to-heart between sisters, are handled with care. Most haunting of all is an ending that is the film’s most vital takeaway. It’s a sad reality that gun violence won’t be going away anytime soon. No matter your drug of choice, finding ways to cope is never easy. The Fallout highlights a specificity, one anyone who suffers from various forms of PTSD will relate to immensely. It’s an intimate character study that will stand as one of SXSW’s best acting showcases, courtesy of Jenna Ortega.

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