By Ryan Fairfield
Content warning: This article discusses the cinematic depiction of a school shooting.
HBO Max’s “The Fallout” (2022) was an intriguing project, even at the trailer’s release. The combination of a Disney child actress and a former dancer from “Dance Moms” (2011–2019) was interesting, to say the least, and that is before looking into the fact that the film is the first feature directorial project of former “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” actress Megan Park. If there were ever any doubts about the casting choices, they have been dispelled as “The Fallout” has defied the odds and gained much acclaim from critics and audiences alike.
“The Fallout” follows Vada (Jenna Ortega) as she struggles with trauma following a school shooting. Following the tragedy, Vada develops a bond with fellow high school students Mia (Maddie Ziegler) and Quinton (Niles Fitch), with whom she was locked in a bathroom stall for the duration of the shooting.
“The Fallout” is not afraid to be controversial and intense. Similar to shows like “Euphoria” (2019–) and “Shameless” (2011–2021), “The Fallout” does not shy away from portraying the hardships of life, specifically the pain and struggle one faces when dealing with trauma and grief. The film is able to capture the authenticity of pain through powerful acting from both Ortega and Ziegler, as well as the directing and writing by Park.
Ortega is truly the star of “The Fallout” and delivers a performance that many young people today can relate to. Of course, not everyone has experienced the level of pain Ortega’s character grapples with throughout the film, but the feelings of hurt and struggle that we see her character go through are universal. Her exemplary acting highlights the complexity of grief, including the ups and downs one experiences while going through that process. In the intimate, comforting moments with Ziegler’s character, we see Vada’s healing, while in the fights with her family, we see the anger. These emotions are part of the grieving process, and Ortega beautifully captures both.
In addition to Ortega’s performance, Ziegler, Fitch and Will Ropp, who plays Vada’s best friend, succeed in portraying well-rounded characters despite having less screen time. Ziegler’s character deals with her pain by connecting with Ortega’s, and the chemistry between the two characters emphasizes the deep connection the two have. Fitch, on the other hand, shows what it is like to lose someone, as Fitch’s character lost his brother in the shooting, and his grieving process is much different from the other characters. Finally, Ropp’s character, Nick, channels his grief through activism. His character is frequently seen giving speeches and interviews prompting action from politicians. These three characters call attention to the different ways people deal with trauma, showing that however one decides to deal with grief, their feelings are valid.
The writing and directing of “The Fallout” works alongside the incredible acting and make the film feel even more authentic. Close-up shots of Ortega’s character during moments when she is struggling allow the audience to truly see her emotions and feel connected to the character, while wide shots are utilized to draw attention to the environment and show how those around Vada react to her. For example, in a wide shot, while Vada is texting a friend on her phone, Vada’s younger sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack) is seen loudly making a TikTok in the background, showing that her sister is not always aware or considerate to her emotions.
Additionally, the writing feels real. Unlike many shows and films today like “Riverdale” (2017–) and “Tall Girl” (2019), the exchanges between the teenagers sound like an actual conversation, not like a 30-year-old struggling to write a teen dialogue. This successful directorial and writing debut of Park proves her talent and makes her someone to keep an eye on.
Altogether, “The Fallout” is an impressive film that truthfully captures the grieving process and the various ways people deal with trauma. It is rare to find a film that feels authentic, especially when those films revolve around teenage life. However, this film succeeds where many have failed. With remarkable performances from the entire cast and the stylistic choices by Park, “The Fallout” deserves all the praise it has received and proves that Ortega and Ziegler are more than just young stars — they are compelling, skilled actresses.