Meghan Park‘s directorial debut The Fallout was the Grand Jury Award winner at SXSW in 2021. Now available on HBO Max, this deeply moving film follows how a group of teens are affected by a school shooting that takes place at their high school. The film only holds on these tragic moments for a few minutes in its first act. The rest of the story depicts how each character handles this earth-shattering incident, particularly the main character Vada (Jenna Ortega). Battling a tendency to be closed off, she learns to navigate her feelings surrounding the violence at her school, and that story of healing is so powerful in its understatement.
Park chooses not to defer to events that are closely linked to the shooting itself when telling this story but instead focuses on each character’s attachment to one another. The cycles that Vada goes through to achieve healing are so enlightening in the exploration of trauma and human connection. In the weeks following the incident, she rejects and then revisits drug and alcohol use. She resists and then welcomes therapy. She pushes away old friends and bonds with new ones. She isolates herself and then rekindles a love with her family. The ebbs and flows of her growth are all laid out so plainly in this film that it draws out an appreciation for each individual player, as well as how the ensemble of characters work as a unit to portray this cycle of loss and rebuilding.
The driving force behind this narrative is Vada’s budding friendship with Mia (Maddie Ziegler). Mia and Vada meet in the school bathroom when shots first ring out. They hide in a stall together in this harrowing moment flawlessly directed by Park. Here, they protect each other and hold each other as they wait, and in the days that follow, they reach out to each other via social media. That terrifying experience bonds them in a way neither of them would have previously thought possible, and Vada is comforted to have someone by her side who knows precisely the pain that she’s experiencing but can not express.
At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Vada’s best friend Nick (Will Ropp). They encourage each other’s silliness and have a very inconsequential attitude towards school, barely rolling up on time the day that the shooting occurs. This easygoingness is what they have in common it seems, not taking themselves or their place in the world all too seriously. After having such a close encounter with a gunman and having lost several friends and classmates, this dynamic completely shifts between them. Nick chooses to channel his fear into action, becoming the face of the campaign to tighten gun regulations, doing what he can to ensure a tragedy like this never happens again. He featured on broadcasted news segments and organizes vigils and protests, these actions seem to keep him afloat amongst all of the heartbreak. This approach is too overstimulating for Vada, who can hardly imagine facing these feelings let alone placing herself right in the middle of a national discussion about gun violence.
When she’s with Mia, she has no expectations to uphold because Mia is just as content to bury her grief as Vada is. And so, when her reality becomes too much to bear, she withdraws from her life and into Mia instead. Nick perceives Vada’s retreat as cowardice, and the two can no longer see eye-to-eye. Nick’s method of coping makes Vada feel insecure, whereas Mia makes her feel safe.
Vada is at a phase in hearing healing where she craves rest and comfort, and that need is effortlessly fulfilled by Mia, who provides a hideaway where Vada is never forced to confront how drastically her life has changed. She can and will remain stagnant until she recognizes that her emotions demand to be felt. Both girls can do this with ease, which can largely be attributed to the fact that Mia is entirely unsupervised in her luxurious home, giving the girls almost too much space and freedom from the trauma they’ve experienced. Her parents are completely absent from this story, meaning that Mia is left to her own devices in the aftermath of this event. Not knowing how to process her feelings without guidance, Mia is quick to turn to drinking and immediately offers Vada a glass of wine when they first hang out. At first, Vada declines, she does not feel the need to numb herself as Mia has. But as time goes on, Vada continues to bury and ignore the sadness and anger incited by the shooting, and that pain is harder to cast aside without help. The first time she asks for alcohol and marijuana, it’s after seeing Nick talk about the shooting on the news. When Vada tries to return to class for the first time, her anxiety is so overwhelming that she takes MDMA just to try and get through the day. But self-medicating with a vice can only provide relief for so long before it becomes a dependency. Thankfully, Park chooses not to torture our protagonists with addiction in the face of trauma but guides them through to the other side, where some semblance of peace can be found. Interestingly, Vada’s relationship with drugs underscores her journey through emotional maturity: at first, her feelings are so intense and uncomfortable that she craves numbness. She later discloses that she’s afraid she’s no longer able to feel anythingthen finally, through therapy, she has a healthy reconnection with those feelings, no matter how staggering they may be.
When Vada is first coerced into seeing a therapist by her mother (Julie Bowen), she is extremely resistant. She truly believes that she is impervious to any damage that being present during a school shooting may have caused, bragging that she’s typically very “chill” and “good at managing her emotions”. She considers negative feelings unproductive and continues to deflect when her therapist Anna (Shailene Woodley) tries to get her to open up and be vulnerable. At this moment, Vada feels like no one could possibly understand what she’s going through outside of the people that hid with her inside that bathroom, and that cocoon is preventing her from reaching out for help. She isn’t emotionally available to explore the parts of her that are still wounded and raw, and she doesn’t want anyone to challenge the decisions she’s making.
Ultimately, it is only when Vada hits the rock bottom that the consequences of her comfort zone begin to reveal themselves. She has alienated herself from everyone who loves her, including Mia. She first realizes this during a tearful late-night encounter with her beloved little sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack). Amelia dots over Vada and is continuously hurt to see Vada direct her anger towards their family. She begins to blame herself for their distance and suffers in silence through most of the film, putting on a brave face for her concerned parents and suddenly cheerless sister. When Amelia comes to Vada, wondering how she can recapture their closeness, she brings such wisdom and perspective to Vada’s self-loathing fueled loneliness. Amelia is able to remind Vada, through how much guilt she is burdened with, that the people closest to her are more and more hurt every time Vada pushes them away. It is in this pivotal scene that Vada realizes that unless she at least tries to come to terms with her experience, her own inaccessibility will be the reason she loses her most devoted support system.
Vada shares a tender moment of openness with her father, Carlos (John Ortiz) who encourages her not to suppress her feelings of rage and anguish but to embrace them and all of the complexity that comes with them. They scream their frustrations over an empty lookout point in a freeing moment of clarity, proving to Vada that her loved ones won’t run from her even if she reveals the parts of her that are still confused and messy and muddled after her traumatic experience.
Vada’s mom Patricia is an unwavering supportive presence throughout Vada’s journey. She maintains approachability and gives her respect even when she begins to act out. Whenever Patricia tries to insert herself for Vada’s own wellbeing, she is pushed further and further to the fringes of her daughter’s life. Finally, when Patricia suggests that it might be time for Vada to go back to school, this tension reaches a breaking point as Vada’s safe space is threatened. She is only inspired to mend that rift after her final therapy session in the film.
When we see Vada in therapy for the last time, she has come to realize that in taking care of herself, she is also caring for those around her. The process of unraveling all the suffering she’d kept wound up inside her was simultaneously terrifying and freeing, but she needed to approach a place where she was receptive to help on her own terms. In this session, she acknowledges everything that she’d been trying to escape every time she’d used drugs, fled to Mia’s house, or lashed out at her family. Vada also tells her therapist that she misses Nick, and that she truly loves him. This signals that their friendship is not over, but has yet to repair itself. Despite everything that she’d once considered to be broken, her relationships with her friends and family are not among them, and this is such a hopeful note on which to conclude the film.
In many ways, the complexities of finding peace after trauma are masterfully, and even beautifully illustrated in this film. Park, however, made the conscious decision not to leave Vada’s story on an entirely optimistic note. She states in an interview that it would feel wrong to tie up the lives of these characters neatly, despite audiences craving closure. She wants to ensure audiences fully comprehend that gun violence is not a problem of the past, but an ongoing cycle of trauma in which we are still living. Providing any sense of a conclusion to this story would negate that very specific feeling she was aiming to impart.
The closing scene of the film reveals that both Vada and Mia are taking the small, necessary steps toward leading fulfilling lives, out of hiding. While Vada waits to meet with Mia, she is notified that another school shooting has taken place. The film lingers on the sounds of her panic attack as it draws to a close. The intentional choice to loop the narrative back to the same heartbreak we feel in the beginning draws parallels to the major themes of the film. This powerful final scene confirms that Park is committed to portraying trauma and healing as an ever-turning wheel, and this decision grounds her narrative firmly in reality.