Vada Cavell (Jenna Ortega) is an optimistic, carefree teenager getting ready for another day of high school. She gets Starbucks and sings in the car with her friend Nick (Will Ropp). Everything seems like a typical day that follows the same structure as the ones before it. Vada goes to the bathroom and sees Mia (Maddie Ziegler). She gives her a passing compliment as she gets herself ready for picture day. Little did they know, right after that moment, their lives would change forever. They would be soon barricading themselves in the women’s bathroom as they hear gunfire in the hallway. Movies such as 2018’s Vox Lux gave audiences an unabashed look at the aftermath of what a school shooting would look like. It’s heartbreaking that these types of tragedies are so commonplace to where drills are instituted in schools to counter them.
Writer-director Megan Park makes a conscious choice to keep the shooting at a distance. Having Vada and Mia both try to find cover in a stall in a five-minute sequence that feels suffocating. Soon after, a classmate named Quentin (Niles Fitch) runs in with a bloody shirt and lets them know he saw his brother get shot. The Fallout‘s setting is a small, suburban California town. An eerie reminder that this could happen anywhere in the U.S. The film then goes into an exploratory phase of how anxiety and trauma can cover someone like a blanket. The primary focus is on Vada and how the relationship with herself and others around her goes through metamorphosis.
There are scenes where she is in shock, either laying in bed or in the shower in the darkness. Park with Kristen Correll‘s cinematography allows for a play in darker color tones in some scenes. Others where the audience is spectating life in an out-of-body experience way. News alerts will play, and it just feels like background noise. As haunting as conversations can be, the silent moments are even harder. As these characters go to the funeral for Quentin’s brother, there’s a sequence that shows all the paper obituaries. For the teenage characters’ in The Fallout, there’s a pre and post-life that they have to navigate.
It’s a cocoon that only they can understand. Veda’s parents Patricia (Julie Bowen) and Carlos (John Ortiz) try to relate and comfort her, but cannot break through her wall. Veda has a little sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack) that still meets her with a pre-teen sense of energy at first. However, Veda almost keeps her at arm’s length, and it changes their relationship. Park’s story clarifies that once a traumatic experience like this happens, there are two different dimensions of normalcy. Patricia says to Veda that she wants her daughter back at one point. From the gaze of an adult, they may look through a lens of the past. Rather than meeting their children where they are.
Each person channels coping in different ways. Nick puts himself in a mode of activism against gun violence. Veda hangs out with Mia more and the tragedy becomes a bonding moment for them both. Mia, who’s a dancer, stops doing so after the shooting. Veda searches for ways to numb the pain she’s experiencing through drug use. There are a couple of dream-like sequences as she’s doing this, accentuated by the musical soundtrack from Finneas O’Connell. It’s almost reminiscent of HBO’s Euphoria. Counteracting the terrible fear that Veda experiences once she has to go back to school.
In this entire maelstrom, inner and outer turmoil plays out on screen. It takes great performances to make that emotion come alive. Jenna Ortega seamlessly goes through these stages of grief where you absolutely feel for her. After all, she’s a teenage girl trying to grow up in a time that’s shaken her foundation to the core. Maddie Ziegler plays off of that where maybe Vada and Mia wouldn’t have been friends before all this happened. In the land of her huge social media standing, Mia reveals herself to not be tied to that. The friendship between these two characters peels back layers of themselves that they didn’t know previously. However, under these circumstances, they grow closer together. The social standards of popularity don’t matter as much with mortality.
Although this story has fictional characters, the subject matter is potent and relevant. Park wants to feel every nightmare that Veda has, the hopelessness that bottles up inside these characters, and the anger. Oh, the anger. A robbery of innocence happens that is concrete by the film’s conclusion. You can’t go back because looking at the past is so painful. That walk forward into the unknown where the problem isn’t solved is just as murky.