‘The Fallout’ is an intimate character study of life after trauma
The opening of Megan Park’s feature-length directorial debut, The Fallout, which follows the aftermath of a school shooting, felt reminiscent of 2018’s Vox Lux, in that abrupt gunfire suddenly destroys what began as a normal day. Unlike Vox Lux, however, we don’t see anything, we just hear it. It’s an inciting incident that won’t sit well with everyone, for various valid reasons, but the shock and surprise of such a horrifying event is remarkably effective because of how realistic it is. This is one of the biggest fears that teenagers in America face today.
During the shooting, chill high schooler Vada (Jenna Ortega) finds herself hiding in the school bathroom with fellow student Mia (Maddie Ziegler). Park is effective at building tension here — the rapid gunshots feel endless as it allows the mind to wander to the worst case scenario as the action happens off-screen: what’s coming for them? This only escalates when a blood-covered Quinton (Niles Fitch) enters the bathroom, also looking for a place to hide. The three of them, once strangers, form a trauma-bond in a single toilet cubicle that will change them forever.
The Fallout focuses not on the event, but the emotional fallout experienced by Vada and the bond she forms with Mia and Quinton after suffering through a life-altering incident together. The film explores how things change when you experience a traumatic event and develop PTSD — even when others don’t. The beginning shows a glimpse of Vada’s close relationship with her younger sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack), which changes when Vada begins to isolate herself to cope. Her well-meaning parents (Julie Bowen and John Ortiz) are lost for what to do so they give her space, but make her see a therapist (Shailene Woodley) so she has someone to talk to. Vada’s best friend Nick (Will Ropp) channels his trauma into activism, which creates some distance between them. Ultimately, Vada turns inwards, seeking the company of Mia instead.
We only get to see Mia through Vada’s eyes: the hot, blonde, popular girl who is an Instagram “influencer” with a flawless yoga-filled feed. She’s a dancer and her parents are abroad, leaving her alone to cope, implying that they’re not only physically distant, but also emotionally disconnected from their daughter’s life. Mia and Vada become closer as they talk about their sleeping problems and more. Soon, they are hanging out together drinking wine, smoking weed, and wearing face masks in the pool. Trauma survivors often become masters at avoiding life, but Vada eventually makes some new self-discoveries.
The Fallout captures a realistic portrayal of today’s youth. In one scene, Vada, while high, walks back and forth by the pool rambling about elephant tusks, while wearing a long, bright orange t-shirt that says “butthole,” before asking Mia if she’s being too annoying, Mia, on the other hand, is floating peacefully in the pool with her vices nearby serving almost as safety nets. In another scene, Amelia films a TikTok dance on her phone while Vada sits on her phone texting — both together, but miles apart. The depiction of how teenagers speak to each other feels refreshingly accurate without being too cringeworthy. Park found a way to portray gen-z culture authentically with genuine care for the current generation. It reflects them positively.
Films about social justice issues, whether based on true events or not, are often powerful and cathartic, but they feel so tiresome now. However, The Fallout was a breath of fresh air because it’s not exploitative. By not making the school shooting the main event, the film finds a way to avoid being completely miserable, while still taking time to explore the aftermath of an event as devastating as this. This is because Park takes the time to construct a dialogue around the fallout of violence and the ways in which we heal, especially through showing, not telling; a common technique that is starting to feel rare.
The Fallout doesn’t over-explain anything and instead lets us sit quietly alongside these characters in their discomfort and uneasiness as they try to make sense of what happened and navigate what comes next. The communication between characters is awkward and imperfect, feeling very natural and realistic. The film’s sombre, grainy feel also adds to this gentle quality, as the film spills out a sensitive yet raw honesty. It doesn’t partake in shock value or have an agenda beyond presenting an intimate character study. It’s an exploration of how life goes on afterwards, at a time when you’re not sure how it possibly can.
The film’s lack of resolution is true to the way PTSD isn’t something that disappears overnight. Vada has a lengthy healing journey ahead of her — one that the film cannot possibly cover the full length of. Vada is left still reeling from an incident that feels like it will never end; her relationships with others left at varying stages; and there’s no predicting what will happen next. That being said, I absolutely wish this film was longer in the middle in order to explore some of the enticing narrative threads further— and this is coming from someone who desperately wishes films would be 90 minutes again. This is because The Fallout is well-written in every way and actually has enough depth to continue fleshing out its subtle story and developing its captivating characters. It also wouldn’t hurt to hear more of Finneas O’Connell’s powerful and emotional score.
Ortega is currently in a well-deserved spotlight due to the newly released Scream and some exciting upcoming projects. She delivers a strong and grounded performance in The Fallout as she demonstrates a wide range of emotions. Zielger has a promising path as an actress ahead of her and I’m eager to see her career develop. Fitch was also a skilled actor whose character experienced such a devastating loss. All three are enthralling to watch, especially when interacting with one another. I wanted more of that. I wanted their stories to go on forever.
The Fallout is currently streaming on HBO Max.