This review contains spoilers
“The Fallout,” the feature directorial debut of seasoned actress Megan Park, premiered at last year’s South by Southwest film festival to critical acclaim. Jan. 27 saw the film’s release to wider audiences through HBO Max, and while the story minorly lacks some character development, Jenna Ortega’s compelling performance as high school student Vada lets “The Fallout” beautifully tackle trauma in the face of tragedy.
The film centers on tomboy Vada and resident influencer Mia’s (Maddie Ziegler) journey through the aftermath of surviving a school shooting after the two hid together in a bathroom stall during the gunman’s spree. Neither Vada or Mia are shot, but the resulting trauma both girls endure makes for a story that isn’t often told in the media.
When I think of school shooting survivors, my mind goes to students rallying and campaigning; hordes of 15-year-olds marching for gun control and mental health resources. Vada’s best friend Nick (Will Ropp) is this image exactly — his anger pushes him to fight for better legislation. While it’s a commendable cause, Vada’s hard-hitting depression and numbness is much more relatable. Bravery is what people like to see after a devastating event, but Vada’s lingering trauma is the reality for so many and it feels so much more real.
“The Fallout” isn’t a story about miraculous healing and coming together to grieve nor is it about a descent into drugs and sex and pain. While Vada has a glass of wine here and there and tries ecstasy (probably not the smartest choice at school), her journey is one of slow healing. There are moments where we see her struggle, but those are countered with moments of happiness and relief, even if it’s just for a second.
A detail I found particularly gripping was Vada’s aversion to the bathroom. On her first day back at school after the shooting, Vada avoids going to the bathroom all day. Her hiding spot becomes the thing she feared, and she was afraid of reliving those visceral moments that changed her life forever. At the end of the day, Vada walks outside and steps on a soda can, and the loud crunch causes her to pee her pants.
Missing school for over a month and avoiding the bathroom at all costs once Vada finally goes back to school proves just how horrifying that situation can be, even though she wasn’t directly impacted in the shooting. Although Vada wasn’t shot and she wasn’t friends with anyone who was, this proves how traumatic a shooting can be nonetheless.
As the film goes on, polar opposites Vada and Mia become close, and the two spend a considerable amount of time at Mia’s empty house. Mia’s dads are out of the country for the entirety of the film, and we’re not really given more information on Mia than that. Vada and Mia eventually have sex, but it felt odd, rushed and misplaced. Then again, that could be easily reflective of the pair’s fragile mental states.
If we had gotten a bit more background on Mia, I would have no complaints on “The Fallout,” but even that gripe is minor. Besides Ortega’s gritty, emotional, struggling Vada, a highlight of the movie is its stellar scoring by Finneas O’Connell. The original song “While You Sleep,” written and performed by Lennon and Maisy Stella, is a perfectly sweet and gentle companion to the tear-jerking ending.
While I wasn’t surprised by Ortega’s nuanced take on Vada after watching her shine on Netflix’s hit third season of “You,” I did sigh a heavy breath of relief at Ziegler’s Mia after her blunderous, Razzie-winning role in Sia’s grossly offensive film “Music.” Park’s creative vision worked in tandem with Ortega and Ziegler to master this devastatingly honest coming-of-age story for the 21st century.
Emma Trevino is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @itsemmatr