Quite literally saved by her little sister Amelia, school shooting survivor Vada (Jenna Ortega) is thrust out of her seemingly normal life into an extended period of grief and guilt in Megan Park’s often moving drama The Fallout. Covering the same ground as many fiction and non-fiction works about grieving and action in the wake of tragedy, Park’s picture feels somewhat more nuanced, capturing the rhythms of upper middle-class suburban life as Vada finds herself drawn to a fellow survivor Mia (Maddie Zeigler) who just happened to be in the same girl’s bathroom at the time of the shooting.
The incident takes place off screen as Vada leaves class when Amelia (Lumi Pollack) calls to let her know she’s gotten her first period and doesn’t know what to do. While hiding in a stall, a shooting victim Quinton (Niles Fitch) runs into the restroom seeking refuge and reporting what little he knows about who has been shot, who’s dead, and who may still be alive in a chilling rendering of just how little is known in the moment––even in a connected age.
Vada and Amelia also seemingly are estranged from their parents Patricia (Julie Bowen) and Carlos (John Ortiz) in the way that busy career-oriented parents set certain expectations for their lives and children, and grow miserable trying to meet them. Patricia’s temper flares up at will as she too struggles to make sense of the events.
Mia, by contrast, is an Instagram influencer and has her own unhappy upbringing. Her artist parents often leave her alone for weeks at a time allowing her to experiment and/or self-medicate. The Fallout presents flawed, realistic, and multidimensional characters that feel genuine even if it’s apparent that we’ve cinematically traveled this road before.
By its second act, the film does grow into an absorbing character study about grief and, in particular, the performance of grief. Vada doesn’t know exactly how to feel and act, which leads Patrica to seek the help of therapist Anna (Shailene Woodley, in a cameo). Vada’s best gay best friend Nick (Will Ropp) grows into a passionate activist, taking to network news shows demanding action. He gives voice to Vada, even after she continues to drift towards Mia, exploring her states of confusion with someone who had been there for one of her most formidable moments.
The strength of Park’s script is that it remains singularly focused on Vada’s experience. Ortega is well cast as a young, slightly rebellious teen that might often get overshadowed by girls like Mia. While there is tremendous emotional fallout around Vada, as she comes of age through a tragedy the film effectively resists the urge to comment on collective trauma, remaining a focused character study.
The Fallout premiered at SXSW.