Jenna Ortega has a star-making turn in “The Fallout,” a high school drama that explores a teenager’s emotional turmoil following a school shooting.
The film conjured up by that sentence may sound maudlin, preachy or, frankly, unoriginal, but what this debut feature from Megan Park gets right is how painfully awkward and strange the effects of trauma can often be, especially when experienced by a group of adolescents. Ortega portrays Vada, a self-proclaimed “chill” 16-year-old who, during the shooting, finds herself hiding in the bathroom with fellow students Mia (Maddie Ziegler) and Quinton (Niles Fitch). This shared experience leads Vada to form intense and confusing relationships with both of them, even as she grows distant from her parents (Julie Bowen and John Ortiz), her younger sister, Amelia (Lumi Pollack), and her best friend, Nick (Will Ropp), who channels his trauma into activism and doesn’t understand why Vada wouldn’t do the same.
Ortega nails her role as a levelheaded teen who, nevertheless, is still a teen, reeling from an unthinkable event on top of the usual growing pains. Her impulsive, bizarre and, yes, even funny outbursts as she tries to reckon with the shooting paint a grounded and compassionate picture of adolescent grief. Her onscreen chemistry with Fitch and especially Ziegler strikes that same delicate balance, as do Vada’s conversations with her school therapist (a briefly seen but very good Shailene Woodley).
Park emphasizes the realism with her low-key yet stylish direction, ranging from small details (a Black Lives Matter sign hanging in a suburban window) to poetic shots that highlight how much the film is centered on the Gen Z experience (two teens wearing face masks and smoking blunts in a hot tub; a girl practicing a TikTok dance while her sister texts in the foreground). As one might expect from a work that revolves around coping with current events, not everything in Vada’s life has been neatly resolved by the film’s conclusion. After all, trauma never really goes away; it grows and evolves, just like the people who carry it.
Rated R for swearing and teen alcohol and drug use. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. Watch on HBO Max.