I swear, I wasn’t looking for a movie about school shootings. I just wanted something to pass the time on my flight back into North Texas, which was two days after the shootings in Uvalde that are now consuming the country. I selected The Fallout because I vaguely remembered some stuff about it when it came out on HBO Max this past January, and I found the best film I’ve ever seen about a school shooting. It’s a small field, but America keeps doing its part to inspire filmmakers to take up this subject.
Jenna Ortega plays Vada Cavell, a 16-year-old somewhere in the Southwest who goes to the girls’ restroom at her high school and chances to see aspiring influencer Mia Reed (Maddie Ziegler) dolling herself up for class picture day. They’re exchanging pleasantries when they hear automatic gunfire in the hallway and have to huddle in a stall for cover. They’re joined by Quinton (Niles Fitch), a boy covered in his brother’s blood who’s also hiding from the shooter. The three of them then hear the police kill the gunman. I could insert a comment here about the Uvalde police, but I’m not going to.
This is an assured filmmaking debut for Megan Park, the Canadian actress who was a regular cast member on The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She never shows us the shooter, and his motives are dismissed with the line, “Is there ever really a reason?” Instead, she focuses on the psychological effects on Vada and her relationships as this funny and imaginative girl turns sullen and withdrawn. While her mother (Julie Bowen) frets incessantly over Vada’s every move, her little sister (Lumi Pollack) misses the older sibling who calmly talked her through her first menstruation, and her gay best friend (Will Ropp) drifts away from her as he turns into a pro-gun control firebrand who speaks for the survivors. Finding home life and school life equally unbearable, Vada can only be something like herself around Quinton and Mia, whose parents are continually traveling and don’t even come home after the incident — seriously, what is that?
Vada’s shifting moods are documented in precise detail, and the film shares her confusion about what it means when she and Mia start sleeping together. I initially thought the subplot with Vada’s therapist (Shailene Woodley) was unnecessary, but it’s there that Vada finally gets some thoughts out: “I’m so mad that one guy with a gun can fuck up my life so hard, can fuck up so many lives.” Things like this make The Fallout a more rewarding film about a school shooting than the pseudo-deep Vox Lux and The Life Before Her Eyes, or the earnestly flailing Mass, or the deliberately affectless Elephant. (Yeah, that last movie came out in 2003, and it’s just as relevant now. Feel shame about that, all of you, especially now.)
Another good thing about the film’s modest scope is that it gives Ortega a showcase, and she manages to be incandescent even when Vada is lying numb on her bed in the middle of the day. You wouldn’t think there’d be room for comedy in a movie like this, but she is very funny in an extended sequence where she drops ecstasy for the first time during class and slithers down the staircase. Then, too, there’s a climactic scene when Vada and her dad (John Ortiz Jr.) go out into the woods and scream out their feelings that’s carried off well. This small-statured 21-year-old has spent 2022 being butchered in Scream, Studio 666, and X, and she can do so much more.
Best of all is the way this movie gives the lie to the idea that survivors can have closure. The film ends with Vada seemingly in a place where she can move forward with school and with Mia. Then her phone gives her a news alert about a school shooting somewhere else in America, and she has a panic attack. This trauma stays with her for the rest of her life, and our gun-nut lawmakers will make sure that she continues to be triggered. We should probably do something about that.