Spoilers ahead. The Fallout only needs five minutes to completely break you. In the last heart-wrenching moments of the movie, out on HBO Max on January 27, Vada, played with care and subtle fragility by Jenna Ortega, receives a news alert on her phone. Students have been killed in another shooting. Vada screams and hyperventilates; the sounds of her labored breathing and tangible terror hang as the credits roll, shedding, once again, any semblance of feeling safe.
It’s an understandably visceral reaction, considering we just spent 90 minutes watching Vada and her fellow schoolmates grieve and cope in the aftermath of a shooting at their own school. It’s also an unsettling end to Vada’s story. But it’s an honest depiction of the complicated process of healing, something Ortega says she realized when she first read the script. “Healing isn't linear and never will be. Emotion fluctuates, situations fluctuate, life itself fluctuates,” she recently tells Refinery29 over Zoom.
This idea of healing as an ongoing journey is what’s at the heart of Megan Park’s feature directorial debut. In a time when there’s an almost national obsession with school shootings, and coverage of them takes on an almost grotesque fascination, The Fallout serves as a thoughtful meditation on not only the human impact of these tragedies, but also the grief, PTSD, and emotional recovery that come afterward.
For Park, these themes were always going to be explored in the film — and solely what was depicted on screen. There's no 24-hour wall-to-wall news coverage of students streaming out of campuses with their hands up, flashing images of the shooter, and pundits analyzing over and over again just how this could have happened, images that have become all too familiar, because that’s not what keeps the director up at night. “I couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like to be a high school student in America right now,” she tells Refinery29. “I'm so inspired by the young people that were able to go through situations like this and turn their grief and turn their trauma into this incredible change in the world, but I kept thinking, I would just be so scared [that] I wouldn't be able to get out of bed every day, and I don't know that I would ever be able to go back to school. I would feel like shit and like a shitty person that I couldn't be up there rallying and saying all those incredible things. There's got to be so many kids who also feel that way.”
Ortega knows exactly what that kind of fear is like. The 19-year-old has grown up with it. She says she constantly checks to see where all the exits are whether sitting in class at school, munching on popcorn at the movie theater, or buying groceries. “It's awful because it feels like [these shootings] have always been around,” she says. “I went to school and we did shooting lockdown [drills], and there was one time when my school was on an actual lockdown because a student on campus had a gun.”
Equally familiar is the cycle of outrage when shootings occur, as the public cycles through shock, horror, rage, activism, and then… forgets. At least until the next incident. But in The Fallout, forgetting is the last thing Vada and her friends are able to do, despite how hard they – Vada especially — try. The high school sophomore struggles to manage her trauma and PTSD beyond the confines of the actual event itself, grappling with her changing sense of self and the effects that one serious life event has not only on her, but on her relationships.
After the shooting, we see Vada — previously vibrant and outgoing — turn inward, staying in her room for long stretches of time and no longer engaging with her family in conversation. With AirPods plugged in her ears, she tunes out her surroundings while her little sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack) makes TikTok videos behind her, the voice of Saweetie telling us to “Tap In” blasting through the silence. This self-imposed cocoon shows how isolating this sort of trauma and the experience of grief can be, not only from those around you, but from yourself as well. Despite the fact that Vada and Amelia are in the same room, their experiences are lightyears apart.
“The sister character really mirrors a part of Vada that she lost in the shooting,” Park says, “that she can't really find her way back to this sort of innocence.” So when Vada later locks the bathroom door so her sister can’t enter — an uncharacteristic move considering we previously see her brushing her teeth on the toilet while Amelia does her makeup on the vanity — she puts up a physical barrier between herself and the person she used to be, a clear sign to both us and Amelia that things have changed. Or more specifically, Vada has changed, forever altered by this event.
And how could she not be? Because the thing about trauma is that it can be overwhelming, all-encompassing, and, sometimes, even debilitating. We see the reality of this mostly through Mia (Maddie Ziegler), a social media dance star who’s always shown post-shooting with a big glass of red wine in hand. Mia similarly retreats, but to a more extreme degree by refusing to leave her home at all. The pair — forever linked after hiding together in a bathroom stall as the shooter ravaged the school’s hallways — forge an intense and unlikely friendship, bonded by their shared trauma. They lean on each other; whether it’s a healthy relationship or not is debatable, but who are we to tell someone how to grieve? Once outside of their bubble, Vada copes with her return to school by taking ecstasy (we won’t spoil exactly what happens, but the comical moment involves a blue BIC pen). Underlying the campiness of it all though is a solemn realization. Though she doesn’t verbally acknowledge it, Vada is so scared to go back to school, the source of her PTSD, and so debilitated by her trauma, she needs to be high to function through the day.
Vada’s tendency to turn in toward herself and pretend she’s fine, instead of opening up, is a feeling that Ortega relates with her character. “That's a natural instinct,” Ortega says. “It's not a healthy one.” The actress also says she tends to deflect emotions and has tended to see them as a weakness in her own life. “I don't know why or where I learned that [having] emotions made you weak and made you small [or] almost less respectable.” And despite coming from a supportive and loving (but not “huggy-kissy”) family, “learning how to create intimacy with others or be comfortable with others is really hard for me.”
But playing Vada has helped Ortega personally grow. “I've opened up a lot emotionally and have explored a whole other side of myself that I don't think would have been possible had I not played this character,” she says. “I would hope that she would find that too.” Which is why when we finally see Vada explicitly vocalizing how she feels (on the side of a hill with her dad and in a therapy session), it feels like tangible progress. We, along with Vada, are healing.
Then it all comes crashing down. Park always knew The Fallout would end this way, with Vada, despite her emotional progress, in a place of gut-gripping terror. Because healing isn’t always direct. “The takeaway that I wanted to leave the audience with is that this type of trauma never leaves a person,” Park says. “I wanted to leave people feeling like, although Vada is healing slowly and will be okay, there's a lot that's not okay, and this problem is not going away and something needs to change.”
And there’s nothing wrong with not being okay, Ortega says. “Oftentimes, people feel the need to put a bow on things or just close things [into a] happy ending. And that's not always the case. But that shouldn't affect how somebody feels about themselves, the respect they have for themselves, the care that they put towards themselves, and it's actually almost a larger testament as to why we should be more attentive towards our own personal needs or desires.”
To end Vada’s story in any other way would have been more comfortable, but the question is, more comfortable for whom? Grief can’t be wrapped up in one film or in one news cycle. And The Fallout shows that even when one tragedy fades from the public discourse, the sobering truth is that another looms in the near future — and the trauma always remains.