In the opening scene of “The Fallout,” we meet Vada (Jenna Ortega, “Yes Day”), a 16-year-old Billie Eilish type — a quirky, reserved, baggy-clothes-wearing teenager. This is interesting because Eilish is an active presence in the film alongside her brother, Finneas O’Connell, as composers. Vada starts on her way to school with her best friend Nick (University alum Will Ropp, “Silk Road”). They grab coffee and chat about high school things, happy and carefree as teenagers should be. But that day at school, a shooting occurs that leaves Vada and the rest of her classmates grieving and traumatized. The rest of the film works to unpack that trauma, leaving its characters cope and heal in the wake of tragedy.
This is an experience that is, unfortunately, all too familiar for many members of Generation Z. Even if it hasn’t been witnessed first-hand, there is always a lingering fear — as Vada’s sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack, “The Kid’s New Years Party!”) feels in the film — that it may happen to you. The film chooses to focus less on gun violence itself and more on the experiences and emotions of the victims. It’s a very smart choice, effective in generating empathy for the characters. At the same time, the angle helps to frame the film’s message for people who focus too much on guns than on the people they hurt.
The film is superb on many levels, but most impressive is Ortega’s performance as Vada. The movie’s emotional impact hinges entirely on her shoulders, and she absolutely nails it. While it could have been very easy for the performance to come off as stiff and wooden, Ortega communicates the pain Vada is experiencing beneath the surface more subtly. The result feels far more truthful.
“The Fallout” also does an excellent job showing how different people can use different coping mechanisms (healthy or not) to deal with trauma. Vada’s friend Nick, for example, starts a campaign — à la March For Our Lives — to try and stop shootings like this from happening again. Mia (Maddie Ziegler, “The Book of Henry”), a girl Vada meets in the bathroom while hiding during the shooting, copes by drinking and doing drugs. She and Vada are able to confide in and comfort each other, but Mia’s unhealthy coping mechanisms then start to negatively influence Vada. But “The Fallout” doesn’t judge how any of the characters choose to process trauma; Instead, it asks the audience to empathize with each victim by showing how the event affects all of them differently.
The film also makes a powerful point about how, while much of the world around them may move on, the trauma related to this experience will live with these kids forever. About a third of the way through the film, there is a uniquely framed shot in which Vada sits on a couch, grieving and texting a classmate to check in on one another while in the other half of the frame Vada’s younger sister happily makes a TikTok.
This dichotomy of trauma that sticks characters returns at the very end as well. When Vada gets a notification about another shooting at a school across the country, she completely breaks down — the film ends here, leaving the audience to process along with her.
“The Fallout” captures what it’s like being a member of Gen Z better than any film since Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade.” The actors all nail the mannerisms of the current generation and perfectly hit their emotions. The movie comments on the cyclical nature of gun violence in this country, noting that it will always be relevant until something changes. And by giving us a personal look at how these tragic shootings emotionally affect the victims, the film can hopefully help ensure that something does.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.