There’s a warning at the beginning of the new HBO Max drama The Fallout: “The following film portrays issues of trauma resulting from an act of violence. Viewer discretion is advised.” A heads-up like this might be initially confusing to some. A new movie depicting violence or trauma has likely been released every week for more than a 100 years without cautionary statements outside of an MPAA rating. Is it a sign of the times? Are trigger warnings now the norm for fiction? Has the culture really shifted that much?
As the first act of the film quickly unfolds, the strangeness of the disclaimer lingers as we meet the young protagonist, Vada (Jenna Ortega), a high-school student in the midst of her morning routine: falling asleep on the toilet as she brushes her teeth, making some semblance of a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich to pack for lunch, driving to school with best friend Nick as they belt out Top 40 radio. She’s smart. She eats cake pops for breakfast. Her celebrity crush is Paul Dano. She’s your average teenager.
And then the conflict reveals itself. In the middle of class, Vada excuses herself to the bathroom, where she runs into Mia (Maddie Ziegler), a semi-celebrity among her peers because of her 80,000-plus followers on Instagram. These two seemingly very different young women exchange pleasantries with each other. It’s here we start to suspect where the plot is headed.
Then gunshots ring out in the hallway. And they don’t stop. Vada and Mia scramble into a stall together and stand on the toilet while they quietly shake and sob, all but certain that they are going to die. The shooting subsides, and they wonder aloud if it’s over. As if in response, they hear the gunfire of what sounds like an assault rifle, exponentially escalating their waking nightmare. A third student, Quinton (Niles Fitch), joins them in the bathroom, soaked in the blood of his own brother. The shooting goes on for what feels like an eternity and then abruptly ends. The scene concludes on an exterior shot of the high school that dissolves on the sky after quickly tilting past the American flag. The on-screen warning now makes complete sense. In fact, it doesn’t feel like enough.
All of this happens in the first 10 minutes of The Fallout. What follows is a character study on the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is the coming-of-age tale the viewer might have suspected, but not exactly the one they were hoping for, as these three strangers make sense of what they endured together. It’s hard not to think of recent films like Booksmart, or even Spider-Man: No Way Home, movies that do their best to depict the complex lives and dreams of the modern teenager and the stakes they face — without acknowledging the reality of just how high those stakes can potentially be. Amazingly, the movie is not without humor and beauty, but the opening tragedy is always present in one form or another.
It’s an absolutely stunning feature debut from writer-director Megan Park, an actor turned music-video director who has worked with talent such as Billie Eilish. She presents a teenage drama with teenage characters that feel and sound like they actually might exist in the real world. One of the ways she does this is by flawlessly incorporating innovative modern methods of communication. There are entire nuanced scenes of dialogue that are accomplished completely through text messaging. Blue and gray iMessages bubble up in the air around characters, as their faces reveal what they actually think about each incoming and outgoing response. Just as effectively, she brings together two characters who have an entire meaningful exchange without saying or texting a single word to each other.
This is all enhanced by the performances of those characters. Ortega as Vada is impressively dynamic, as she goes from happy-go-lucky teenager to someone in acute mental distress. The supporting performances from both Fitch and Ziegler are just as effective. It’s not always easy to discern what is normal behavior and what is an expression of trauma, since the viewer doesn’t learn much about the characters before the incident, but every choice the actors make feels real and natural. The film also contains some more familiar faces in limited roles, most notably Shailene Woodley as Vada’s therapist and television veteran Julie Bowen as Vada’s mother. They both offer a reassuring presence as their characters do their best to give Vada the space and support she needs as she attempts to make sense of the reality in which she has suddenly finds herself.
Sitting on the back burner throughout the narrative is the simmering kettle of gun control. The talking points often heard on cable-news networks exist as noise in the background of the film, but Park is trying to appeal to a wider audience with a different approach. She wants viewers to experience what it’s like to live through a mass shooting, and she does so effectively. The audience never recovers from the story’s inciting event, even though they never witness what happens outside of the bathroom. The viewer only sees three frightened teenagers huddled together on a toilet gasping for air as they reckon with the likelihood of an imminent and violent end. The rest is left to the imagination. There’s a scene halfway through the film showing students reviewing active-shooter drills, which are quite common in schools and businesses. Park wants us to know that while some teenage dramas revolve around overcoming one’s virginity or getting into a really good college, actual high-school students face very real threats of being gunned down at their locker — while the best solution offered to them is a slideshow on how to run and hide.
The Fallout is now available to stream from HBO Max.