The first touch in “The Fallout” that shows Park’s special and compelling filmmaking sensitivity is in how she presents the incident, the school shooting that takes place a few minutes into the movie and then rings in your ears for the rest of it. She knows that we don’t need to see violence, or guns, to perceive the complete trauma of the experience, and Park presents the movie with two girls, Vada (Jenna Ortega) and Mia (Maddie Ziegler) in separate bathroom stalls when the shooting starts. Vada crawls into Mia’s stall, and then a shocked schoolmate named Quinton (Niles Fitch) joins them, covered in his brother’s blood. It is a deeply, deeply horrifying moment that accomplishes the horrifically ordinary nature of the event.
From here, the rest of “The Fallout” follows Vada, witnessing her stunted relationships with her family (like her loving parents and her sister, the latter who she was texting right before the shooting) and her friends in a time when she can’t talk about it. On the margins of Park’s character study is the society that normalizes these unfathomable and traumatic experiences to essentially being a part of growing up. Its emotions then work with the more revealing but casual dialogue, like when Vada’s friend Nick speaks casually about what he did with his day—he went to a rally. “It was cool though, they let me speak.” Nick becomes a type of stand-in for the teenagers who are known in the media for their trauma, but Vada is instead representative of those who do not have media attention, and live with it all the same. She goes to the different funerals, she doesn’t know why she survived. She goes to therapy (with Shailene Woodley’s therapist giving Judd Hirsch/“Ordinary People” vibes), and she does not feel anything.
This movie’s ambition is playing in a league different than a great deal of its peers; it starts with a darkness and relevancy a lot of filmmakers spend their careers never wanting to touch. But that also is part of the setback for “The Fallout,” as it becomes all the more obvious when scenes seem to be more powered by the context than much that is revealing. Park’s script wants to sit with someone after this experience and capture the growth and experiences, but sometimes it seems like it wants to represent more than push us more. The tone can be weak in the process; some scenes are simply sad, or others are simply funny, and others are more about hanging out (as with Mia, her new friend) and it’s not certain how strong these script fragments would be without their harrowing context. Any time the story feels simple, it reads like a missed opportunity to engage this extremely complicated experience that we don’t often see through the eyes of someone like Vada.