The Fallout Review: Coming-of-Age in the Wake of Tragedy 

The Fallout on HBO Max is a female coming-of-age story after a school shooting.
In the United States, there is an unfortunate truth: the threat of school shootings within American schools is on the rise. In 2021 alone, there were forty-two acts of gun violence, which is the highest number recorded since 1999. The previous record was thirty shootings in one year, and it is estimated that 34,000 students, from kindergarten to high school, were exposed to gun violence. Survivors have used their grief as a force for change, but many students still struggle with the aftermath of what they lived through.
The Fallout seeks to contextualize the trauma and violence imposed by the survivors, thus making something beautiful, raw, and emotional out of a horrific tragedy. The movie premiered in 2021 at South by Southwest in 2021, and it was a hit with critics. There, at the festival, it won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Choice Award in the Narrative Film Competition, and the Brightcove Illumination Award. The wide release was delayed until its launch on HBO Max in January 2022. The movie's haunting score was created by Finneas O’Connell, the brother of the singer Billie Eilish.
Jenna Ortega, who previously has been seen on shows like Jane the Virgin, Netflix’s You, and can be seen in the newest edition of Scream, plays the protagonist Vada Cavell. Vada is a high schooler who seems pretty ordinary at the start of the movie, albeit a bit a tomboy when compared to Maddie Ziegler’s character: Mia Reed. Vada is wearing baggy, oversized clothing with sneakers, while Mia applies makeup and wears a trendy camisole crop top when they first meet in the school bathroom. These two serve as foils; they seem like exact opposites, strangers who merely pass by in a high school bathroom once and never speak to each other again. While Vada is a tomboy, Mia is girly, doing her makeup in the bathroom, and has thousands of Instagram and Tik-Tok followers who adore her dancing videos.
However, Vada and Mia become bound together because of the shooting. What starts as a polite bathroom conversation turns into a nightmare, one where they hear screams and gunshots and hide on top of a toilet together. Two girls unlikely to have been friends before will now stand at a kitchen aisle discussing the nightmares and insomnia they are experiencing each night. If one of them had been alone in the bathroom, perhaps this would have been a completely different story. But because they were together, they automatically gain someone who understands what they went through.
These girls embody the generation that has grown up with the fear and knowledge of school shootings. They text each other through Instagram while posting videos of their hobbies and interests, watch YouTube videos by Vogue while sitting in bed together, and the soundtrack offers contemporary hip-hop and a melancholy song at the right moments. They go to Starbucks and wear the latest trends that are so clearly 2020. These are subtle reminders about their age and how youthful they are. Death seems like something that can only happen to adults, but when it happens to children it doesn’t seem real.
While the film revolves around the school shooting and how it impacts the lives of Vada, Mia, and the entire community, it refuses to reside on the act of violence itself. This decision is powerful, shifting the focus quickly from a gruesome event to what happens after. Often, when something like this occurs, many linger on the act, the suffering, and what happened. The shooter’s name is usually plastered all over the news, but not in this movie. But what comes after the act? This is what The Fallout seeks to investigate through the lens of these young girls who were left traumatized.
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The only evidence of the crime, when it happens, is when a classmate comes in with a bloodied shirt to hide in an adjacent stall. It is not his blood—he says his brother has been shot. But all of their memories are not as easy to forget as washing and bleaching a shirt. When Vada’s younger sister asks her if she wants Starbucks and pesters her with questions about the shooting, Vada is incapable of answering any of them. Her parents do not know how to cope with the situation, while Mia’s two fathers will not come home to their daughter even in the face of tragedy.
Ortega and Ziegler in the lead two roles move fluidly, almost as if they were meant to play these characters all along. At the beginning of their relationship, as they progress from texting each other to cautiously meeting up, there is that initial awkwardness of trying to befriend someone new for the first time. Yet, as they continue to meet and talk about their lives and feelings, something truly genuine and authentic appears, unlocking a vulnerable intimacy that ponders on loneliness, fitting in, and if the world will ever be the same as before.
Ortega’s role in The Fallout as Vada was identified as a breakout role, and that is quite truthful. She brings a particular nuance to Vada’s character, one that doesn’t explicitly state her emotions and thoughts. As she insists that she’s fine, that everything will be okay, the audience cannot help but root for her. But past her superficial comments, she is not okay. While there are lighthearted moments after the shooting reminiscent of a normal teenager’s life, an undertone of darkness lies within Vada as she trembles in the bathtub and lies awake at night. It's this denial that leads her towards toxic and regrettable decisions that are out of tune with who she is. Shailene Woodley makes an appearance as Vada’s therapist in two brief scenes, coaxing her to come to terms with her feelings and situation.
The movie has a runtime of ninety-two minutes, and while the most intense scene is in the opening, it manages to pack a lot of commentary and story into that runtime. Each of the characters has been forever changed by the shooting in different ways; Vada’s best friend, Nick (Will Ropp), is no longer the upbeat guy he was before and now marches and campaigns for change. Her classmate, who lost his brother in the shooting, has a different way of coping with what happened and seems to come out of the situation calmly—or, at least, on the surface he is calm. Vada turns to drugs and drinking, further alienating herself. Mia’s struggle revolves around her loneliness in combination with what has happened at school. As the other characters return to school, Mia cannot bring herself to go back.
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Social media is woven into this tale almost seamlessly; Mia’s and Vada’s relationship initially begins through texting and social media apps and in mundane scenes, Vada can be seen on her phone as the texts visually come up on the screen. Mia has all these social media followers, but she is shown constantly alone outside when Vada is there, even in her own home. Technology is always there, even if the viewer does not realize it. Whether it is a phone, television, or headphones to plug out the monotony of the everyday world, it is a form of escape and a reminder of how alone the characters feel. Vada’s sister Amelia tunes into fashion, slang, and social media trends constantly, making her an annoying thorn in Vada's side. It's her knowledge and behavior that drags us back into the world as it was before because Vada used to be similar. Now that she changes, she is unable to relate to her younger sister anymore, creating a deeper rift between Vada’s family and her.
The Fallout may be Megan Park’s directorial debut, but it engages with a depth of emotional maturity and authenticity that more seasoned directors may struggle to replicate in their work. When a school shooting occurs, it affects everyone affiliated with the school, whether parents, students or an entire community. Grief and coping cannot be contained to one singular mode or method, and when empathy fails, relationships come and go. It may be difficult to try and move on, but it will be a lifelong journey of healing, not something that can occur in a month. As days, months, and even years pass by,
Perhaps The Fallout is a movie that engages and embraces the experiences and fears of Generation Z, although many in this cohort may not have been personally touched by gun violence. There is, however, the pervasive fear of what can happen, and that is what does happen in this film. These girls survived the unthinkable, but what comes after, the guilt of surviving and finding out how to navigate this new world, is unfathomable. Park gave a voice beyond the shooting, offering life and recovery in the face of hardship.
Chris Pine is an elite soldier on the run after a betrayal in the official trailer for his newest movie The Contractor.
Writer, author, and aspiring critic. Find me @ashleynassarine.


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