There is this very particular social relationship that comes from going through a deeply traumatic event with someone and feeling like you know so much about them but simultaneously nothing at all because you had never even spoken to them before. In the aftermath, you feel like this person you both know and do not know is the only one who might actually offer comfort. This is precisely the relationship of Vada (Jenna Ortega) and Mia (Maddie Ziegler), who hid in a bathroom stall together while their high school was shot to pieces. Though they had never even loosely considered themselves friends before, they crouched together on a toilet seat and cowered into each other with every scream and resounding gunshot. The pair exchanges numbers when it is all over, retreating to their own homes, but still stuck inside that horrible moment.
It is awkward, this relationship that lives in a confusing space of familiarity and knowing. The first few times they hang out are mostly filled by silence and then by mindless conversation that aims to get to know each other, but completely avoids the reason they know each other. They lie on the couch watching thoughtless television with just the tops of their heads touching. Both of them are plagued by what they have experienced, but neither of them can talk about it, so Mia just asks Vada to stay over until she falls asleep. Their friendship increases in intensity as the weight of their trauma fully sinks in.
The processing only begins when the funerals start, and even then both are reluctant. It becomes especially painful when their third friend, Quinton (Niles Fitch), has to bury his brother. He had hidden in the bathroom with them, shaking like a leaf and soaked in blood, and now lives stricken by the guilt that comes with surviving. They lock themselves away from others and abandon all of their pre-existing friendships. Each of them prefers to avoid rather than contend with their grief and each one seeks out different but equally harmful coping mechanisms. Mia and Vada both become reliant on substances to cover up their hurt. The former is determined to rid herself of all emotion and the latter is desperate to feel anything, no matter how artificial.
Eventually, refusing to go to back school lands Vada in therapy as a condition of staying home. Her parents are generally respectful of her wishes, but stay appropriately worried about her and wish for her to heal more than anything. Even in front of a helpfully neutral audience, Vada finds unpacking her emotions to be an impossibility and struggles to verbalize her feelings to her therapist (Shailene Woodley).
As a whole, the ensemble cast gives genuine and devoted performances. Ortega is especially sensitive and layered in this fractured suburbia, always reminding us of her youth and overwhelming feelings of disconnect. They all, along with director Megan Park, continually manage to do something new with a narrative that holds such familiarity.
The Fallout is a devastating exploration of gun violence and the innumerable ways it damages and destroys. It portrays both adolescence and trauma with a dedicated amount of care and authenticity, ensuring that its protagonists do stumble and lose their way as they heal. The film avoids resolution, even in its final scene. Instead it leaves us with the awareness that the healing in this, as it is in life, is incomplete and takes far longer than what can be fit into an hour and thirty-five minute run time.