Does The Fallout (2022) really live up to this title?
*Disclaimer: This article contains major spoilers for The Fallout (2022)*
On January 27th, The Fallout released on HBO Max. The movie, Megan Park’s directorial debut starring Jenna Ortega and Maddie Ziegler, has been dubbed “the first defining movie of Gen Z” by Silver Screen Riot. But does the film’s exploration of subject matter such as trauma, the tribulations of adolescence, and school shootings really live up to the lofty label?
The film follows the aftermath of a school shooting, focusing specifically on sixteen-year-old Vada Cavell (Jenna Ortega), whose ordinary existence is irreparably shattered by the harrowing experience. Aside from the pain that accompanies such a traumatic event, she suffers from a strong sense of isolation. While her best friend Nick (Will Ropp) responds to the shooting by taking action and organizing local students to fight for gun control, Vada’s is decidedly less proactive… and definitely less healthy.
She turns to Mia (Maddie Ziegler), a fellow student who was in the bathroom with her when the shooting occurred. What begins as a fast friendship born out of shared trauma quickly evolves into something more. All the while, Vada struggles with numbness and subsequent guilt for how little she feels, and begins experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
It’s hard to watch Vada spiral after the shooting, but her response is also refreshing in its realism. One thing that The Fallout does particularly well is capture how ugly trauma can be. The film acknowledges that some people, like Vada’s friend Nick, are capable of turning traumatic experiences into positive influences, but it also shines a sympathetic light on those who are more harmfully affected. Although Vada isn’t always likable in how she behaves with her family and friends, Jenna Ortega’s performance humanizes her and reminds the audience that she is a flawed teenager who is trying her best.
When it comes to the sensitive topic of school shootings, the film takes care to handle it delicately. Although we can hear gunshots and screaming during the pivotal scene, visually, the director focuses on Vada and Mia hiding in a bathroom stall. It’s clear that there is no intent to sensationalize or unnecessarily draw attention to the horrors of gun violence—the film recognizes that its audience is already well aware of them, and doesn’t waste time trying to emphasize them. It is a testament to Park’s sensitive and light-handed writing and directing that all the same emotions of fear, panic, and anxiety still translate on screen.
Another important plot point is the relationship between Vada and Mia, which treads the line between friendship and something more. As detached audience members, we know their relationship doesn’t have the healthiest foundation, and as we see Vada’s behavior and personality warp as she grows closer to Mia, we can tell that they may not be the best influences on one another. For example, it is with Mia that Vada gets high and drunk for the first time—a decision that is clouded by her own confused emotions and her desire to fit in with her friend. Yet the genuine love the two share for each other is obvious onscreen, and this helps us empathize with Vada and Mia’s interdependence.
One especially controversial aspect of the film is the ending. As Vada waits for Mia to come out of a dance class, she gets a notification about another school shooting that occurred elsewhere in the country. The news visibly upsets her, and as she begins to have a panic attack, the screen goes white, and the film ends. One popular interpretation of this ending is that it is a commentary on the prevalence and inescapability of school shootings. Some viewers and critics commend The Fallout for an approach that is so realistic. Others, however, find it to be a dissatisfying conclusion that ends the film far too abruptly when there are numerous loose ends to the plot that have still not been resolved.
This divided response brings us back to the overarching question—is The Fallout really that good? Is it good enough to be called the first defining movie of our generation?
I don’t think there is a singular answer to this question. For those that see their own struggles with trauma and recovery reflected in Vada, the answer may be a resounding yes. But for those who disagree with the film’s treatment of school shootings as an incurable, endless phenomenon, it may be a definite no.
But there is one thing that I believe The Fallout captures perfectly—and that is the film’s depiction of how messy and confusing it can be to be a teenager. And what could be more “Generation Z” than that?