'The Fallout' review: Teen's life rocked in wake of school shooting

Jenna Ortega stars as a high schooler in stunning drama that unfolds after a school shooting turns her world upside down.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It's an average day at high school for 16-year-old Vada Cavell.

She hits Starbucks on the way to school with her best friend. In class, she gets up from her desk to take a phone call from her sister and wanders the empty halls. She stops in the bathroom where a classmate is putting on makeup because school pictures are later that day. 

Jenna Ortega in "The Fallout."

And then shots ring out, and nothing from that point forward is ever the same.  

"The Fallout" is an honest, harrowing portrait of teenage life and anguish in the aftermath of an all-too-relatable event that too many people have had to deal with, and are continuing to have to deal with. It's a coming of age story where the coming of age is set against the backdrop of a horrific incident that has become a tragic reality of the modern teenage experience. 

Writer and director Megan Park's startling debut feature confronts the confusion and turbulence of being a teen, and how that day-to-day turmoil is exacerbated by a chaotic life event, such as an armed gunman inside a school taking out students in his path.

Park wisely steps back from showing viewers the gunman on film. We experience the shooting through Vada (Disney Channel alum Jenna Ortega, also currently in "Scream"), a Los Angeles-area high schooler and self-elected outsider, who dresses in baggy T-shirts and beat up Air Force One high tops.

Upon hearing the loud bangs in the hallway she hides inside a bathroom stall along with popular girl Mia Reed ("West Side Story's" Maddie Ziegler), who seconds earlier was fixing herself up in the bathroom mirror. They're soon joined by Quinton Hasland (Niles Fitch), who is covered in blood from trying to save his brother, who was hit by the shooter's bullets and will go on to die from his gunshot wounds. 

Three students, forever linked by terror, are now tasked with moving on with their lives.

Vada turns inward, and doesn't want to talk about things with her well-intentioned parents (John Ortiz and Julie Bowen), who do their best to give her space. She's also snappy with her younger sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack), who just wants Vada's attention and can't understand the reality of her situation. 

Jenna Ortega and Maddie Ziegler in "The Fallout."

She doesn't feel safe going back to school, so Vada begins hanging out with Mia, whose parents are abroad and leave her to live by herself. They drink wine, smoke weed and hang out by the pool, processing life by avoiding it as much as possible. 

She also begins spending time with Quinton, and her new social life bothers her best friend Nick (Will Ropp), who has pledged his time to becoming the face of the shooting, trying to enact change. And Vada can't take her therapy sessions with her assigned counselor Anna (Shailene Woodley) seriously, preferring to talk about anything other than herself and what she experienced. 

Park creates a floaty, drifty narrative for Vada, even allowing for one outlandish piece of physical comedy, where Ortega recalls Leonardo DiCaprio's infamous Quaalude scene from "Wolf of Wall Street" on a school stairway. Ortega gives a bright, poignant performance throughout, a highlight of her young career. 

Even without the school shooting, "The Fallout" stands as an open and relatable snapshot of teenage awkwardness, one of the best examples of the genre since 2016's "The Edge of Seventeen." But with the school shooting it becomes something more, and it shows the ways the trauma today's youth has had to collectively process has affected them, and will continue to affect them, like no generation prior.  

There have only been a handful of movies that have taken on school shootings in as frank a manner as "The Fallout"; in 2003, Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" took a straightforward look at the perpetrators of a school shooting, while Brady Corbet's 2018 drama "Vox Lux" used a school shooting as a dramatic backdrop for a pop singer's journey.

"The Fallout" approaches the subject in a different manner, and is in keeping with last year's Academy Award winner for Best Short Film, "If Anything Happens I Love You," as well as 2021's "Mass," in which the parents of a school shooter and the parents of one of the victims sit down for a meeting together to talk and to try to get everything out on the table. These are non-sensationalistic films that dig into the guts of a heinous event and try to come out with some sort of understanding, even if there isn't any to be found.

"The Fallout" does the same, wrestling with issues of survivor's guilt, post-traumatic stress and moving on after a tragedy. It's a movie for now, and sadly, its relevancy isn't likely to fade anytime soon. 



'The Fallout'


Rated R: for language throughout, and teen drug and alcohol use

Running time: 96 minutes

On HBO Max