Whenever there’s a mass shooting (and in the United States, there have been at least 150 so far this year), the number of victims often refers to those who died. The Fallout does an excellent job of reminding us that there are so many more victims than simply those who perished, so many lives were damaged, so many people walking around with a piece of them forever changed. Focusing on the survivors of a high school shooting explores the complicated grieving processes and varying experiences of teens living in the shadow of a terrible tragedy. Grounded by a star-making turn from Jenna Ortega, The Fallout is an emotionally evocative exploration of what it means to survive the unthinkable.
Vada Cavell (Jenna Ortega) is an ordinary high school student on a seemingly normal day. She steps out of class to take a call from her precocious little sister about periods, a fortuitous turn of events that will ultimately save her life. Ducking into a bathroom before returning to class, she hears gunshots. The thing that every high school student in America has lurking in the back of their mind has happened to her.
She and one of the most popular girls in school hide together in a bathroom stall, and this forms an unbreakable bond between them, one that supersedes all of their other relationships in the aftermath of the shooting. Mia Reed (Maddie Ziegler) is a gorgeous, self-confident dancer, an Instagram influencer with half the school in love with her and the other half thoroughly intimidated. But she’s also lonely, with her fathers almost always out of town, and she clings to her relationship with Vada like a drowning person to a liferaft. Their connection is deep, almost beyond words, but it’s also vaguely codependent.
The Fallout creates space for what it looks like to heal from tragedy and acknowledges that the process will look different for each individual. Vada shuts herself off from friends and family, only opening up with Mia. But her best friend Nick channels his energy into becoming an advocate for gun control reform, desperately needing what they went through to mean something. Vada’s parents hover anxiously, trying to gauge how well she seems to be recovering on any given day. Her younger sister takes Vada’s silence for anger, shouldering the guilt that her silly little phone call that day could have been the thing that put Vada into the line of fire. No one is OK, and yet…life still goes on.
Each of the actors are allowed to explore raw emotion, and there’s a natural quality to many of their interactions that brings the story to life. Conversations between Vada and Mia barely even seem scripted, so authentic is the delivery of their dialogue. But the most effective part of The Fallout is how effortlessly it clears the way for Jenna Ortega to put in one of the best lead performances of the year. Her trauma is heartbreaking to watch unfold because of how muted and understated it is. She is a victim who is determined to make everyone believe that she’s doing just fine, but there’s so much lurking underneath the surface that her parents and her therapist, and even her friends never see. She’s holding on by a thread, self-medicating with illicit drugs and emotionally cutting herself off from her family, but what is she supposed to do? The world needs her to move on, so she’ll move on, even if she isn’t ready. Ortega imbues Vada with incredible emotional complexity, and she is captivating to watch.
The Fallout is a testament to the heavy emotional burden faced by the victims of gun violence and the pain that lingers long after the shooting stops. And how can you begin to heal when every week, there’s another attack that forces you to relive your trauma all over again? Bold, devastating, and deeply empathetic, The Fallout creates an undeniably powerful emotional experience anchored by Jenna Ortega’s masterful embodiment of grief, trauma, and survivor’s guilt.