When “The Fallout” first entered American cultural consciousness, Variety described the film as “tak[ing] the pulse of a shell-shocked generation.” A new release on HBO Max starring Maddie Ziegler and Jenny Ortega, “The Fallout” depicts the aftermath of a school shooting, centering on the emotional fallout of Vada (Ortega) and Mia (Ziegler) post-incident. My peers gave the film positive reviews, but I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it. Why couldn’t I even want to watch it?
The headline of the Variety article left me lingering on the word “shell-shocked.” Shell: something I’d pick up on the beach as a child, collecting in a wicker basket, curling cones and hard conch. Shock: fingers in sockets, static electricity, surprise and excitement at blue arcs of electricity. Put the two words together, and I can’t tell if it means I’m numb to fear, or if I’m so acutely sensitive to it that all I feel is the bone-rattling panic that comes when someone’s youth is crumpled between the bony palms of a scary world.
I have never directly been a victim of school shootings, yet the trailer for “The Fallout” left me shell-shocked: the two obviously teenage girls curl in a yin-yang shape on a bathroom toilet as gunshots snap through the air. I recoiled at what I saw on my screen, not because I have been in the position of these characters, but because I have imagined so many times what I would do should an active shooter enter my school. With frequent threats — some credible, some not — against my high school, my mind has seen a gunman coming through the door of the science wing, into the English classroom, into the bathroom, with its green-ish blue tile and Formica stall doors. I would run in zigzags as I had been trained. I would not break the glass of the third-floor window and jump into the tall pine tree. I would not jump. I would run, or I would hide.
Four years ago — the exact amount of time needed to earn a high school diploma or an undergraduate degree — I first learned the distinct, nuanced fear of being gunned down at school. Immediately following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, I published an op-ed in the Seattle Times titled: “‘It could have been us’: 3,000 miles from Florida, a 14-year-old’s plea.” Shell-shock put me on my knees, begging adults and leaders for change, because at 2:21 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, 2018, 17 more peers in Parkland, Florida were shot to death. By a gunman was only one year removed from high school himself. All of whom would now be in the middle of their first year of college, as I am today.
My childhood ended at 2:21 p.m. on that Valentine’s Day. The comfortable protection I had long enjoyed — the warmth of my parents, teachers and coaches — was no longer enough. Care doesn’t stand up against bullets. I don’t need to curl up under my covers and eat my popcorn and drink my peach tea and watch “The Fallout” and relive that moment. Children should never need to fear for their lives when they go to school, nor need their adrenaline to spike every so often when CNN alerts tell them that more students are dead. “The Fallout” rightly shows the world the grim fact that students may not be safe. But no matter how well 35-year-old director Megan Park depicts the aftermath of a school shooting, it doesn’t change the fact that we are not ready — I am not ready — for this reality to be shown on the big screen. I don’t want to feel as if I am not alone in this pain when I watch this movie. I want the wounds of what could be to heal and never again be torn open by a trailer I see before a nonsense video on YouTube, a trailer whose trigger warning flashes by so quickly I didn’t even have time to press pause.
Park spoke to People, Variety, and The New York Times about not being able to imagine what it was like to be a student in America now, but there are millions of students who live under the threat of school shootings every day. HBO Max is an intensely accessible platform, one even Yale provides to students for free. “The Fallout” may attempt to tell our story in a way that acknowledges the continuity of the gun-control issue in America — the film has also been lauded for its accurate depiction of protagonist Vada’s emotional struggles post-shooting. But putting the problem on a screen for the purpose of entertainment doesn’t soothe the burn.
Park assumes that I want to see these feelings in a movie, but I don’t. There is an important distinction between writing entertainment about stages of life we’ve all experienced and writing entertainment that capitalizes on the “drama” of what that stage of life looks like today. Recent shooting threats against the Philosophy Department at UCLA — and the frantic texts sent by my friends there who were told to avoid philosophy buildings and classes — have already rendered “The Fallout” unwanted, exhausting and ultimately unnecessary. My education in the years since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shootings is enough.
I already know to run in a zigzag — if someone points a gun at you in class. I know that mourning is a little less hard alongside a nation and is much harder when you watch your friends do it in the hallways. I know how strangely easy it is to write down things I want my parents to know, should I go to school one day and not come back. Typical things: cremated, not buried; I loved them endlessly; please read the rest of my journals. I learned that two years of aftermath makes you numb to pockmarks of angst: 88 additional school shootings occurred between Feb. 14, 2018 and March 2020, when a majority of schools in the US closed their physical doors. My education doesn’t need “The Fallout” to be added to the syllabus. School should be a sacred place of education, but as of today, it isn’t. This travesty should not be turned into a for-profit, star-studded film. Park’s intention may be there — and I don’t doubt it was good — but the impact of the film cuts too deep.
Our generation is facing the four-year anniversary of the sanctity of the American educational experience being tarnished. At its core, it isn’t about the anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. It isn’t about the pandemic, nor bomb evacuations, nor the countless threats against student safety that have become normal in America. I can ignore the familiar snakes of fear slithering behind me as I walk to class, the sting of venom curdling in my veins. But I cannot ignore Hollywood trying to equate this pain with entertainment. A trigger warning is not an antidote. Don’t whip up something artificial and tasty for the masses to consume using the ingredients of a tragedy no child should know.
Films like “The Fallout” normalize a reality we’ve all been forced to accept. No matter the classroom, no matter the locale, I know how to write the text reassuring my parents that I am okay — that I am alive — because I have done it too many times by now.
At a place my family sent me to learn about the world, I write home to reassure them that the world has not hurt me. This time.