The Fallout: Exploring Grief

The Fallout (2022) dir. Megan Park

Starring Jenna Ortega; Maddie Ziegler; Niles Fitch; Julie Bowen

Released for streaming on HBO Max on Jan. 27, directed and written by actress Megan Park (The Secret Life of the American Teenager, What If), and featuring original music by FINNEAS (also known as Billie Eilish’s brother), Park’s The Fallout is clearly a product of this very moment.

The film follows high school student Vada (Jenna Ortega) as she goes to the bathroom in the middle of class to answer an urgent phone call from her younger sister (she got her first period!). While in the bathroom, she sees a fellow peer, Mia (Maddie Ziegler), a famous influencer and dancer, doing her makeup in front of a mirror. With her baggy clothes and unkempt hair, Vada looks to be the complete opposite of Mia, at least aesthetically, which makes the following moment a bridge between their two characters. A school shooting happens. The two girls hide in a stall, joined by another classmate named Quinton (Niles Fitch), whose brother is killed in the shooting. 

As the movie goes on, Vada begins to deal with the trauma of the shooting in several ways, becoming close friends with both Mia and Quinton, who are simultaneously dealing with grief. Through interactions with her mother (Julie Bowen), sister (Lumi Pollack), therapist (Shailene Woodley), and former best friend (Will Ropp), Vada’s character becomes fleshed out in several directions. She is shown almost catatonic with Mia, lounging in the other girl’s sauna while she drinks glass after glass of wine. Vada supports Quinton, trying to be a present friend for him while he deals with his brother’s death. She is clipped with her younger sister, hardly speaking to her in the way she used to, and she refuses to open up to her mother. Vada attends therapy at the request of her mother but is sarcastic and guarded, making it clear that she doesn’t believe she needs to be there in the first place. In the moments when she is alone with her thoughts, she panics. Anxious about the prospect of returning to in-person school, Vada decides to buy ecstasy in the parking lot before class. Vada eventually progresses in therapy, reconnects with her parents, and has a heartfelt conversation with her sister. Other threads, like Mia and the former best friend Nick, are left with something to be desired. 

For Park, her direction was generally grounded and clear, avoiding confusing or muddled sequences so often seen in first-time directors. The script, also written by Park, has moments of awkwardness due to several attempts at Gen-Z slang. Regardless, middle-aged screenwriters have proven again and again how tricky it is to naturally imitate the speaking patterns of current high schoolers, so I don’t completely blame her. Capping out at 92 minutes, the film feels slightly unfinished, not due to its ending (which is fantastic), but more because of the unexplored storylines of several characters. 

Maddie Ziegler’s basically orphaned role of Mia (her parents are famous artists that remain somewhere internationally throughout the entirety of the film) becomes dependent on two things in response to the shooting: Vada and wine. Throughout the film, her drinking becomes worse, and her apathetic personality appears to be a product of terrible acting instead of deliberate characterization. Even after passing out in her sauna from even more wine, Ziegler doesn’t deliver. It certainly doesn’t help that Ortega is giving the performance of a lifetime alongside her, creating interesting and dynamic exchanges with every one of her co-stars. Ultimately, Ziegler plays herself, an influencer and dancer, asked to respond to Ortega’s emotional depth but fails to answer. As a result, her story is cut short, for better or for worse. 

In another vein, Niles Fitch’s Quinton undergoes personal loss, as his brother is one of the shooting victims. His scenes appear as extensions of Mia’s own healing process, and instead of exploring him individually, we see his plot dropped for the closure of others (for example, Mia and her sister).   

As a whole, Park’s film doesn’t do too much, relying on a simple concept and phenomenal acting from Ortega. The dialogue is sometimes clunky, but decent direction and editing pulls the story along. Rather than taking the risk of overcomplicating certain storylines, Park aims low, succeeding in the few she focuses on. The others, though, are left hanging in space, but it makes sense that Park didn’t take on too much for her directorial debut. Final thought: 8/10. Could be more, but satisfying nonetheless.  

“The Fallout” is currently streaming on HBO Max. 

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