Columbine, in 1999, wasn’t the first American school shooting, but it’s the one that seems to loom the largest. Quickly afterward came the unrelenting attempts to retell the story, to make sense of it. To turn the slain into folk heroes. To find a way to explain what happened, and why, and then why it kept happening over and over again.
We’ve kept at that impossible task for well over 20 years. The Columbine generation are raising their own children now; we’re on our second generation of kids who live in that shadow. In the meantime, we’ve watched movies and TV shows about school shootings, and lived through them over and over again; they’re among the traumas of our age. And as shootings have grown from shocking to shockingly commonplace, the questions we’re trying to answer have changed, too; we’ve shifted from interrogating the shooters to understanding the survivors.
Within a few years of Columbine, the quest for meaning had migrated from TV news screens to bigger ones. In 2002, Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won a special prize. In it, the filmmaker sought to explain the “why” of the violence. There are answers, sort of, statistics and stories about the prevalence of guns and gun culture in America. But there aren’t truly satisfactory explanations.
A year later, Gus Van Sant, the director of Good Will Hunting, premiered his drama Elephant at the Cannes Film Festival. The film follows a small group of students at a fictional Portland high school over a few days before two boys, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), come to campus with automatic weapons and a plan to systematically murder their classmates and teachers. It won the Palme d’Or.
Van Sant had initially planned the project as a TV documentary about Columbine, then scrapped the idea after executives were worried about showing violence on television. Unlike Moore, he didn’t want to explain why Columbine happened. He said he was instead “trying to get out more a poetic impression and sort of allow the audiences’ thoughts into that impression.”
Watching Elephant almost 20 years later, that explanation — whatever Van Sant’s desires for his film — doesn’t fully hold up. Elephant can’t help play like a search for reasons, a dip into shooters’ psyches. The film hints at reasons: violent video games, lack of parental oversight, irritation with authority, sublimated homosexual desire. They are angry young men. They’re the reason Elephant exists.
It’s interesting to hold up Elephant, which lingers for an excruciating period on the actual shooting event, against more recent films about school shootings. Megan Park’s film The Fallout, which is as much a teen drama as a movie “about” a shooting, may be the best. There are some similarities between the two. Both take the emotional lives of teenagers seriously and mostly keep parents and teachers out of frame. Both follow multiple characters. And both evoke the chilling sound of guns shooting in empty school corridors.
The early-aughts millennial teens in Elephant are caught unawares; when they see Alex and Eric crossing the school lawn with giant duffels loaded with weaponry, they’re not sure what’s going on. But a generation later in The Fallout, the shooting happens at the film’s start, and the teens know exactly what’s happening. They have been participating in active shooter drills since grade school. They’ve seen news of shootings on TV. They know about the Parkland kids, about what happened at Sandy Hook. They are getting shoved into a narrative they know all too well. Vada (Jenna Ortega) happens to be in the bathroom when it happens, and she takes refuge with Mia (Maddie Ziegler) and Quinton (Niles Fitch). The violence happens off-screen, while the trio huddles in a stall, trying to turn invisible while the unthinkable happens outside.
But, they survive. And the film’s focus isn’t on why it happened. We barely learn anything about the shooters; they’re beside the point, for Vada as well as the film. The teens have taken for granted that shootings happen, all the time. Instead, they are asking why they survived, and how they can live in their altered reality.
The Fallout is terrific, and terrifically real. Teens seek refuge from their recurring nightmares and fears in ways that mark them out as individuals — in drugs, or in sex, or in throwing themselves into activism, or in simply losing their will to do much of anything. They’re funny kids with parents who are mostly doing their best. Their friendships are real. They’re smart and cool, though not nearly as grown-up as they think they are, and they’re living through something impossible. Unlike in Elephant, it’s them, the ones who didn’t commit heinous acts, who are the true focus.
But to contrast The Fallout and Elephant isn’t to say one is better than the other, or more ethical or correct. Looking at the two, it’s more clear that storytellers’ focus has shifted over time. Earlier films like Elephant or Bowling for Columbine focus on the shooters and their reasons — and so they tend to end at the shooting.
That’s also the narrative arc in Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 film We Need To Talk About Kevin, also a Cannes premiere, and — not insignificantly — based on Lionel Shriver’s novel, which was published in 2003. The film largely centers on Eva (Tilda Swinton), whose life has fallen apart in the wake of a school shooting, perpetrated by her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller). In a jagged and nonlinear way, we slowly come to understand that something is terribly wrong with Kevin, who exhibits profoundly antisocial behavior almost from birth, largely directed at his mother. He’s kind of a criminal mastermind, and when he’s arrested at his school, he shows no remorse at all.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is unusual in that he shoots with a crossbow, rather than a gun. But taking the question of gun violence out of the picture underlines the story’s main point: to see if there’s a way to pry open Kevin’s mind and get what’s going on in there. And the answer the movie gives is that there isn’t. It’s just darkness the whole way down.
What emerges from these early aughts attempts to understand shootings using the tools of cinema is a need to understand, in a way that ends up centering the shooter. Does that have an effect on viewers? Does it position the shooter as the true protagonist of the tale? And — perhaps most chillingly — is it possible that it makes the character, however heinous their deeds, sort of attractive to certain audiences?
It’s impossible to say, and maybe even dangerous to posit. But as the months after Columbine showed — when garbled stories grew into folk legends that could end up hurting survivors further — that focus could be, at best counterproductive. And in the decades of school shootings since, survivors have found themselves processing their trauma in different ways, complicated by having to navigate those emotions with a still-developing brain. Meanwhile, we can offer all kinds of reasons that school shootings happen so frequently in America, including a prevalent gun culture and lack of mental health support. But those confront the symptoms, not the cause. We still don’t have real answers for the why of it all, the senseless violence, the unending tragedy, the thing that might make a young person want to do something so awful — the thing movies tried to figure out.
So perhaps it’s unsurprising that filmmakers have been gradually turning in the direction The Fallout takes, focusing more on what happens next. We’ve all been living, to one degree or another, in the wake of school shootings, whether we’ve experienced them directly or not.
This isn’t easy to do well. Brady Corbet’s 2018 film Vox Lux leans hard into the skid, following a pop star who rises to fame after she survives a shooting at her school, then writes and performs a song about it and becomes a hit. She’s destroyed by adulthood, but whether it’s the trauma or the lifestyle or the fame or all of it, it’s hard to say — and the film seems a little too in love with its conceit to actually embody its goals.
Fran Kranz’s gentler and more devastating ensemble drama Mass, released last year, gets at something profound. It’s the story of four people who meet to talk years after a shooting: the parents (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) of a boy who died in a shooting, and the parents (Ann Dowd and Reed Birney) of the shooter. Their conversation is knotty and painful. Here, the parents are added to the ranks of the survivors, run ragged and devastated by the ways they’ve tried to respond, to understand how their own child could have been the shooter, or the shot.
And as they stand in for the thousands of parents living through the same thing, they beckon the audience to live through their eyes, to understand the tangly and uncertain world they occupy. Mass ends with grace, maybe a little catharsis, but no answers or explanations. This is a mess that we are living through, one that can be confronted but requires courage.
Meanwhile, the kids try to keep living. The best moment in The Fallout comes right at the end, when Vada seems to have recovered just enough to “move on” from what happened. We think she’s got the tools to cope and keep living. But in the final moments, she picks up her phone to see a news alert about a shooting at a high school halfway across the country.
And the last thing we hear is Vada’s breath as she has a panic attack. For the second generation of school shooting survivors, it’s never really over. The best the movies can do is try to capture that experience, let it linger, give space for grief to survivors, and make sure all of us understand.
The Fallout is streaming on HBO Max. Mass is streaming on Hulu and available to rent on digital platforms.