Grief is a clumsy thing — awful, aching, and yet sometimes absurd. These complexities are explored with great empathy in The Fallout, a new HBO Max dramedy in which the clumsiness of grief collides with the awkwardness of coming-of-age.
In her feature directorial debut, writer/helmer Megan Park focuses on the bond that blossoms between two teen girls who survive a school shooting together. Thoughtfully, Park keeps the violence of this horrific inciting incident off-camera and brief. One moment, happy-go-lucky tomboy Vada (Jenna Ortega) is casually texting gossip from a bathroom stall, while picture-perfect teen dream Mia (Maddie Ziegler) is perfecting her makeup contour in a nearby mirror. Then, gunshots ring out. Instinctively, the girls huddle together in the same stall, climbing atop the toilet seat so their feet won’t be visible. Park embeds us with them, telling the story of what happens beyond the bathroom walls through the sounds of shots, screams, sobs, then police sirens. The girls will only witness a little bit of blood. Yet it’s enough to communicate the cold reality of death and chaos.
The Fallout follows Vada home, where her popping energy has been subdued. In her room, she hides from her family. They want to help, but her parents (Julie Bowen and John Ortiz) don’t know what to say, and her chatty little sister (Lumi Pollack) can’t shut up. (“I’m literally gonna’ Amazon a bullet-proof backpack.”) Meanwhile, Vada’s debonair bestie Nick (Will Ropp) channels his energy into activism, becoming an outspoken advocate for gun control. But news reports about the shooter and Nick’s emerging campaign play at the borders of The Fallout, like a buzzing that Vada wishes desperately to tune out. So, she reaches out to Mia, who shares her sense of isolation — but from the vantage point of a swanky mansion, stocked with red wine, facial masks, and amenities like a pool, Jacuzzi, and sauna. Throwing themselves face-first into these luxuries along with binges of reality TV, the girls aim to escape their reality and evade their grief. In their clumsy teen way, they begin to build a community.
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Grief is not something we overcome; it is something we carry. The Fallout understands this, delicately detailing the journey of learning how to lift the weight of grief. For a stretch, the girls are numb and feel almost embarrassed about that because of how proactive some of their peers are being. To the credit of Park and her leading ingenues, this numbness is never dull. Scenes of silence between the two are much-welcomed moments of respite from the noise of life as normal, a concept that feels alien to the girls now. Then, this numbness springboards them in a desperate urge to feel something, so bring on the experimentations with drugs and sex!
Rather than playing out such sequences as an after-school special/cautionary tale, Park normalizes these arguably reckless choices with a defiantly joyful tone. Overcoming the dumb numbness of grief to sprawl into a party-drug-fueled return to school is played for laughs. Expertly, Ortega’s wounded eyes turn dreamy as her stern mouth slips into a slippery smile and she slides giddily down a flight of stairs. For this brief bliss, the world is her ludicrous playground. Later, a formative kissing scene is anything but numb. Chemistry sparks. Two teens move close, inviting us to remember that thrilling rush of breath and fear of rejection. When Vada asks softly, “Is this okay?” the consent that follows — accompanied by a swooning soundtrack by Finneas O’Connell — gently signals that this is a moment bigger than either might yet realize.
Grief is not something we overcome; it is something we carry.
That doesn’t mean there’s a clear path to a happy ending. As a movie that does right by grief, The Fallout wouldn’t dare make such a false step. Instead, Vada slowly learns to open up to her sister, her father, and her mother. Each of these scenes has its own rhythm and mood. In one, there are careful whispers. In another, she and her dad chaotically shout out curse words off a hilltop, screaming to the world how unfair and confusing and genuinely fucked-up life can be. In another, Vada rushes into a ramble of realizations, pausing briefly and self-consciously before tumbling back in. In each of these steps, Ortega is radiant.
Recently in Scream, she was a scene-stealer (who deserved better). Here, she smoothly shoulders a role, richly written in lovingly messy complexities, and gives it breath as well as staggering sobs. She is a star, and Ziegler, who might be best-known as Sia’s dancer/muse, is her pitch-perfect scene partner. From their first shared frame, her dancer’s poise is a sharp visual contrast from Ortega’s slouching, smirky Vada. Her skills are used within the context of bragging Instagram videos, deftly exposing the facade of perfection that can be projected, while the poster is falling apart behind the scenes. But most importantly, Ziegler and Ortega have an ease in their onscreen relationship that makes Mia and Vada’s rocky road through healing feel real and are thereby all the more heartwarming.
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Don’t mistake me. This isn’t exactly a feel-good movie. Even with its humor and verve, The Fallout is full of heartache. It’s a tearjerker, but sometimes there’s nothing as cathartic as a good goddamn cry. The specifics here are about a school shooting, a tragedy all too common in the United States. Yet the journey of its mourners is universal, capable of connecting with those of us grieving over all kinds of losses. It’s a film about death, sure, but also about the loss experienced when the world you thought you understood is ripped away from you forever, perhaps by someone with a gun, perhaps by a pandemic, perhaps something closer to home but no less devastating.
Too often, American culture urges us to rise above grief, find the silver lining, focus on the positive, search for gratitude. But there’s no fix for grief; there is only feeling it. And that is hard, especially when you feel alone in it. That’s where The Fallout becomes exceptional, because we’re not just invited to watch Vada and Mia. We’re invited into the stall, onto the couch, and into their community of grief. By capturing the dizzying moods that swirl in this tragic tornado of emotions, Megan Park gives audiences an outstretched hand, a shoulder to cry on, and a reflection of our pain, brutal yet beautiful. Through this story of survivors, she tells us that we may be broken, but we are not alone. In that way, The Fallout is not just a superb tearjerker, a profound teen dramedy, or great good-cry cinema. It’s a gift, giving us the space to tremble, tear up, and let go.