Content warning: gun violence and school shootings
I still remember the exact date: March 16, 2019, when my friends and I were studying in the Hatcher Graduate Library. It was a Saturday, the day before St. Patrick’s Day. I remember this because on our way there we’d passed fraternity houses filled with students celebrating “St. Fratty’s Day.”
We’d talked about leaving the library and getting something to eat at South Quad, but any thoughts of tendies or soft serve left our minds as we started seeing the messages sent to org group chats: There was an active shooter in Mason Hall.
I had gotten the first text, but I waited to tell everyone else about it until they had also gotten one (something that they relentlessly tease me about now). But the truth is that I was in a strange state of denial, a clouded sense that it couldn’t be real, or maybe a sliver of desire that if I pretended I hadn’t seen the text, it wouldn’t be true. But soon enough, there were more texts from more sources, and the problem became something I couldn’t ignore.
We all packed up our stuff. We were on the fourth floor, so we started climbing stairs — up to the eighth floor, since we figured that the higher up we were, the safer we would be. The eighth floor is small, mostly offices and a hallway, with two entrances. My friend had a thick belt that we used to keep one door locked, and we latched the other one with the power duo of a bolt and a laptop charger tied around a bar sticking out of the frame.
Other people in the building had the same idea. People started joining us pretty soon after we’d arrived. I saw two girls I knew from an org we were in; I never talked to them about it later. In total, there were probably 25-30 people crammed into that little hallway, leaning against the walls, staring out the windows.
We listened to the police scanner, heard them speculate about suspects and apprehend them. We gasped as they heard them talk about a suspect heading towards the UGLi. (I later heard stories about people holed up in the basement of the UGLi who were hiding behind tables, listening to the police scanner and thinking that that was the moment they were going to die.) Some kid tried to pick the lock to get into one of the offices in the hopes that we could hide in there, where it was less exposed. People around me were calling their parents, their boyfriends and other loved ones, staying on the line while we waited.
I’ll spare you the tension, because the truth was that there was no shooter. A group of people had popped balloons in a Mason classroom that, muffled and distant, sounded like gunshots. But we had no way of knowing that. We were up in that hallway for about 45 minutes, listening to the scanner, waiting for something to happen. We heard officers on the scanner checking every floor of Hatcher before they finally made their way up to us. They knocked on the door, stared blankly at our makeshift laptop charger-defensive measure and escorted us out.
In a post-Columbine world, grade schools all have lockdown drills — safety-based plans for handling an active shooter or suspicious person or any other kind of active threat. I have distinct memories of sitting stock-still in my classroom in elementary school, with the lights off and a couple dozen students clustered in a shadowy corner, away from the windows. The worst part was when the principal and other admin would come by and rattle the doorknobs, checking to make sure they’d been locked. Still, there was always a gasp in the room, and I would lock eyes with some of my classmates long enough to know that we were all thinking the same thing: that maybe it was an intruder, and that the drill was no longer a drill but had morphed into reality. It was terrifying to think that you were next.
Throughout my thirteen years in the public school system, there were moments that brushed against the idea of a real school shooting. Group reading time in first grade turned into an impromptu lockdown when a man a few streets over began threatening to kill himself with his firearm. There was a football game my freshman year of high school when our principal came on the loudspeaker before the game had started to announce that a nearby high school had experienced a school shooting earlier that day. When I was a senior, my high school had three bomb or gun threats within two weeks, all hoaxes, but overwhelming enough that the district canceled high school classes for a day in the hopes that everything would reset.
But for the most part, school shootings were something that happened Somewhere Else. It was the tragic thing you saw on the news, the thing that made people gasp and then say, “This time things will change.” Every high school’s name has an effect, but it’s an effect that seems to fade with time, until we forget. It always felt like everything went back to normal immediately after the moment of silence had ended — not because it wasn’t tragic, but because it was routine. These were not my schools, not in my hometowns; the victims were not my friends, or my neighbors, or my teachers. We, the mostly unaffected, could move on as if nothing had changed.
The week after the “shooting” on campus, I found myself getting into strange conversations with people about what had happened. I started to realize that my experience was somewhat unique compared to the wider university community: It was a Saturday, and there were maybe a thousand people in buildings around the Diag. To most people, they could forget about the incident as soon as the weekend passed; for me, it stuck with me for weeks at the front of my mind. “Hi, I’m Kari Anderson, I’m a freshman, and my fun fact is that I sort of thought I was going to die in Hatcher last month.”
Because things are different when you’re the one who is affected. Even if the “shooting” itself was fake, the fear was absolutely real. That hour I spent on the top floor of Hatcher, sitting on the hallway floor and listening to the police scanner, was a blur of emotion, but the main one I remember was uncertainty — both “what’s going to happen?” and “what am I supposed to do now?” My friends and I, and the rest of the people hiding on the top floor of Hatcher, were escorted down the elevator by officers holding the largest guns I’ve ever seen in my life. We walked out of Hatcher that day and headed off campus to a friend’s apartment. Later that day, I went back to my dorm and ate cake that my RA gave me. We stood in the tiny kitchen eating cake and talking about how balloons could cause so much damage.
Because that was the thing I kept getting stuck on. The shots were never verified by DPSS. No one sent out any security alerts. All of the communication was done through students frantically texting friends and org group chats. The word traveled about an active shooter in Mason Hall, and so the students who were on campus that day, the post-Columbine generation, acted accordingly. None of us — the students on campus, the people attending the vigil on the Diag that day, the officers making their way through every single building on campus — questioned whether it was real.
25 years ago, school shootings weren’t even a thought. Now they’re an expectation.
It’s been almost three years since that moment. Most of the students at Michigan don’t remember that it happened, and even fewer who were actually there are still on campus. People don’t mention it often, if at all. Enough time has passed that we can joke about it. But for me, there’s still a part of my Michigan experience that will always be stuck with the time that I sat in Hatcher for 45 minutes and contemplated my own mortality while a team of law enforcement officers scoured every single building on the Diag.
In all of my close calls, it was the closest I’ve ever come to a school shooting. And it wasn’t even real. We walked away from that moment shaken up, alive and deeply confused. Theoretically, it was just about the best case scenario. But I can’t help but think of the kind of place we’re living in. We all instantly jumped to the worst possible conclusions because that’s life in the United States: the only place where school shootings are the expectation.
That’s where “The Fallout” comes in — a 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival entry that was just given widespread streaming access on HBO Max. The film tackles the issue of school shootings head-on with unflinching clarity. Many critics are focusing on “The Fallout” as a definitive Gen Z movie — not just because of the way that the characters speak and interact with cell phones but because of how they see the world. We are one of the first generations where school shootings are not an unthinkable scenario but a potentially real threat. Kids in the United States grow up going to school with metal detectors, security guards, lockdown drills and the ever-present hope that their high school won’t be the next one trending in the news.
The beginning of “The Fallout” is a normal school day. Vada (Jenna Ortega, “Scream”), the main character, brushes her teeth, squabbles with her sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack, feature debut), and drives to school with her best friend Nick (Will Ropp, “The Way Back”). Vada happens to be in the bathroom with Mia Reed (Maddie Ziegler, “The Book of Henry”), a near stranger who she goes to school with. Then they hear shots, then screams, and they rush to hide in the stall.
The entire shooting is over before the 10-minute-mark of the film, shown only through what Vada and Mia hear in the bathroom. The rest of the film is devoted to what happens once the coast is clear — because what do you do next when things aren’t life-or-death anymore, but you’re still stuck in the trauma of thinking you were going to die?
“The Fallout” does not sensationalize violence. It runs on empathy, on the universal acknowledgment of horrible tragedy and the unique task of having to overcome it. News stories about school shootings focus on the victims and the shooter; “The Fallout” pivots the view towards the survivors.
Throughout the film, Vada and her relationships bend in the face of the trauma she’s faced. Vada and Nick, for example, take entirely different approaches: Nick starts taking action by making speeches and speaking to news sources. Vada, meanwhile, sinks further into herself. She alienates herself from her family, lashing out at her sister as well as her mom (Julie Bowen, “Modern Family”) and dad (John Ortiz, “Horse Girl”). Unable to connect to her usual support network, Vada leans on Mia as the two form a deep and dependent friendship. They drink wine; they lie in Mia’s sauna (her parents are rich and never home) and talk about how numb they feel. Vada likes being with Mia because the two of them can both shrink away from reality. They keep things, as Vada would say, “low-key.” (“Low-key” is a big word for Vada). But, as most of us know, trying to suppress your emotions doesn’t allow you to deal with them.
It’s been nearly a year since I saw this movie, and it’s continued to stick with me. As the days have passed and more school shootings have been reported, there are three moments that have stuck with me the most.
First: A scene where Vada gently places the program from the funeral of one of her killed classmates into a box. The camera stays on the box as Vada adds more to the box — program after program.
Second: A shot of Vada lying faceup in a chair while Amelia repeatedly practices a Tik Tok dance in the background. Vada is dissociating into the ceiling, and eventually starts texting Quinton (Niles Fitch, “This Is Us”), a boy she met while hiding in the bathroom whose brother was killed in the shooting. Amelia is completely unaware and keeps dancing to Saweetie.
Third: A moment on the day when Vada returns to school and steps on a soda can. The camera sticks on her terrified face before revealing the urine stain on her shorts. Vada is distressed, embarrassed, angry at herself for her body’s involuntary betrayal.
“The Fallout” is a stunning directorial debut from writer and director Megan Park and a stunning performance from Ortega. The film reveals the titular fallout with care and intimacy, following Vada as she tries to find solace through drinking, kissing and crying. There are moments of hopelessness, punctuated by closeups of Vada’s eyes, ringed with tears and streaked mascara, or of her in the dark, her face lit up by the dull light of her phone. There are moments of unexpected hope and joy — the bonds of family and friendship that can’t be broken. It’s a beautiful film, and a funny one, and a heartbreaking one. It’s as complex as the emotions that it addresses.
It’s the kind of film that wouldn’t exist in a better world — a world with effective gun control laws, a world where schools can’t be compared to a potential battlefield. But in our world, as it stands, “The Fallout” has to exist. Films have the incredible power of bringing truth to light, of forcing us to confront some of the brightest and ugliest parts of humanity. Films like “The Fallout” exist to reawaken our empathy.
I’ve thought about writing this piece a few times in the past year alone, to share my experience about the “active shooter” in Mason Hall. I thought about writing it on the two year anniversary of the Mason “shooting” incident. I thought about it after the mass shooting in Atlanta, or the shooting in Denver or any of the other mass shootings in 2021. I thought about writing it around Oct. 4, 2021, when a threat stating a plan to target women on Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus was posted on a Russian confession website. I thought about it again in December, with the one that hit closest to home. I still don’t know how to talk about Oxford, how my heart sank the moment I saw the news notification and the rest of my day felt like a haze.
But one of the worst parts of all of this is that each time I put it off, I knew there would be another chance for it to be relevant. There was always going to be another school shooting or mass shooting for the piece to coincide with because the shootings never seem to stop.
I think part of me was waiting for “The Fallout” because I’ve never seen a film that tries to tackle how school shootings affect the community and how unbearably common they’ve become. It’s heartbreaking that we’re at the point where we have to make films to remind us how shootings can affect students and how safe they feel at school. But like I said, it’s easy for the unaffected to move on. We keep moving, becoming numb to the news notifications, because this one isn’t as bad as the last, or because this time things are really going to change.
The final scene of “The Fallout” is simple. Vada sits on a rock, waiting for Mia. She looks calm, maybe even happy, when her phone buzzes with a notification about a new shooting at a high school across the country. Everything shatters. The film ends with a white screen and the sounds of Vada’s shuddering breaths.
It’s not a spoiler, exactly. Because that’s how mass shootings seem to work in the United States: a Sisyphean cycle in which healing and calls for action are simply ruptured by the next one. “The Fallout” first premiered last March at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. Since March 2021, there have been 30 school shootings, including one mass school shooting resulting in the deaths of four students and the trauma of many others. There have been more shootings and threats at schools in the days since I started writing this article.
“The Fallout” reminds us that we can’t become complacent. We can’t keep letting these things happen. We can’t keep letting ourselves be unaffected.
Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.