Us Kids is a story of perseverance, of friendship, and of healing together.
“It might be good to emphasize how unhealthy we were, so people don’t think it’s a good idea to do a bus journey of their own,” Emma Gonzalez says in Us Kids that premiered Saturday at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to one of the longest standing ovation in Sundance history. Filmmakers Kim A. Snyder and Maria Cuomo Cole’s new documentary film chronicles 18 pivotal months in the development of the March for Our Lives movement. Us Kids provides a personal lens into the lives of ordinary kids who are coming-of-age in a world they see as “going to shit” but use their trauma and their grief to try and do something about it even if it means risking their mental health. The film brilliantly depicts the anxiety and the pressure that kids are feeling today while exemplifying the strength that can come when they band together with a common goal. Us Kids is a story of perseverance, of friendship, and of healing. It is a must-see.
The 90-minute documentary chronicles three intertwined stories. First, of Stoneman Douglas High School student Sam Fuentes who got shot in her Holocaust class on February 14, 2018. Second is the story of Stoneman Douglas students-turned-activists Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and Jaclyn Corin, who organize March for Our Lives. Lastly is the story of Bria Smith, who joins the March of Our Lives bus tour after being introduced to them when they visit her hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Sam did not have a close friend group at Stoneman Douglas. She did not get to choose whether or not she was going to appear in front of the media. Sam found herself in a hospital bed following the deadly school shooting. Her classroom was a target. She lost some of her classmates including her good friend Nicholas Dworet. Throughout the film, Sam has the burden of wondering why she survived and why she wasn’t able to do what some of her other classmates like Emma Gonzales or David Hogg were able to do.
She tells us that she uses humor and her art to cope. Her music plays throughout the film. When she threw up on the stage of March for Our Lives D.C., in front of millions, she embraced it and made a joke out of it. When she throws up on stage at an intimate Manhattan fundraiser for Pen America a few months later, Sam runs off the stage only to return to make a joke, “Sometimes I forget I was shot.” But thanks to Kim A Snyder, we get to see what was going through Sam’s head:
“I can feel the same fear at the bottom of my gut,” Sam says. “I remember just thinking, great there are no windows in this room, no clear exits, I started getting more and more fearful for what it might do to me. God, I am so stupid. I am so stupid. Fuck this. And I remember my mom; she was rubbing my back. ‘It’s okay you’re just not ready, you’re just not ready.’ And I am like ‘no mom I am ready. I am ready; you just don’t know.’ That’s what got me on the stage because it was my mom who told me I was not ready.”
At the start of Us Kids, Sam narrates that she “was sitting in my hospital bed, and I saw Emma on TV.” She goes on to say, “It was a moment of confusion and then a moment of complete clarity: the tears, the running-ness in her eyes the pinkness in her face. I can feel her through the screen. In that moment, it felt like a switch was turned inside her, and it was electrifying. She was on fire. Then I remember just looking up to her and thinking, wow, ‘I can do that.’ Sam was like many of watching Emma Gonzalez on our television screens. It is only until the film explores Sam’s relationship with her friend Nick’s brother, Alex, who was grazed by a bullet, that you begin to understand that no, Sam really couldn’t be Emma. Sam and Emma, both at Stoneman Douglas at the same time, went through two very different experiences, and therefore both had to deal with their traumas differently. Sam was confined to a hospital bed at first, and still has to deal with her physical scars.
“For a long time, it was really hard to relate to a lot of people because that’s what trauma does,” Sam says. “It rips apart the parts of you that build you up and dismantles them. But those are the moments where you have the most clarity because things become a lot more clear in the dark.” It is her relationship with Alex that begins to heal her. “When I met Alex, I didn’t feel being around him was really triggering,” Sam tells us. “I found the opposite. Being around him was really comforting.” It is Sam’s relationship with Alex that is at the heart of Us Kids. Following the shooting, Sam felt alone until she met Alex. They connected because they feared people’s actions. “There isn’t a lot of people who can relate to that feeling,” she says. “I honestly feel that Alex, at times, is the only person who does. It reminds me that if I needed someone to talk to that, I could.”
When Sam looks at Alex, her friend’s younger brother, she sees herself, and she wants to protect him. “Grief, fear, and paranoia hardens someone. It makes them more aware,” Sam tells us about her own experiences. “I just hope it doesn’t harden him to the point where he won’t let other people in,” she says unbeknownst to her that she hasn’t let others in. It is one of those moments of clarity where we, the audience, realize that we cannot heal on our own. Sam, thanks to Alex, gets stronger and stronger as Us Kids progresses. She heals by looking after Alex.
The Kids on the Bus
Unlike Sam, who had to heal from the physical trauma of the Stoneman Douglas school shooting, a set of kids from Parkland Florida were grieving differently. Their process, as Jaclyn Corin states were “doing something.” In Us Kids, the filmmakers take us inside the house where 20-students, including Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and Jaclyn Corin, gathered following the shooting that changed their lives. “Parkland was chaos,” Cameron tells us, “children in pain. Survivor’s guilt. Trauma. An entire community is disarray.” Yet another school shooting in the United States, but this time in their affluent community. They were angry, and they wanted to do something about it.
“What if we got to change it this time?” Cameron asks. “So the people here in Parkland Florida they don’t think that’s the city the school got shot up and everyone cried and hid in their houses for a year. People think, Parkland, Florida, that the city the school got shot up, and then, for lack of more eloquent words, shit went down.” And like the story, we all know goes, change they did. Shit did go down. They organized student walkouts, marches throughout the world, including one of 800,000 people in Washington D.C. that we attended, and a summer bus tour where they toured the country to educate people on sensible gun control and the midterm elections. All caught on tape for Us Kids’ viewers.
Us Kids shows us a different side of the March for Our Lives movement. We get a front row seat to the international movement they created. We also get a first-hand look at the emotional toll it took on these students. First, there were the media. Cameron jokingly said, “we were being tossed around like an STD at Florida State University.” Emma goes further to say, “we fucked up interacting with [the media] like that, not understanding where we can say no and where we can say yes.”
Then came the death threats thanks in big part to the media, “as a young man I have never gotten death threats before,” David Hogg tells us. “I basically can’t go to some areas where there is a lot of people who don’t like me. It’s partially my fault, too, because I went on the news a lot in the beginning of this, and I was pissed off. I look back and cringe because I never have had the level of emotional intelligence or empathy or sympathy as Emma has.” As the bus tour continued, so did the counter-protestors. Some more violent than others. The film takes us to El Paso, Texas, where one of the counter-protestors walked into the same hotel the March for Our Lives students were staying, and they were walking down the hallways with their handgun. David responds to the Us Kids cameras, “If they kill me. They prove my point. I think Maxine Waters said it best when someone was like I want to kill you, and she said shoot straight.”
Town after town, the students met other students and adults who were dealing with their gun violence trauma. It was in Las Vegas where the trauma caught up to Cameron. “I was depressed, and I wasn’t realizing it,” he emotionally tells us. “I just thought I was tired. We were meeting with a bunch of survivors from the shooting in Las Vegas. They told us details about what happened to their leg when it got shot, how it felt to run on the leg with a bullet in it. I spent the whole summer hearing stories of people’s pain and misery, but for some reason, they got me. I had to walk out, I felt dizzy, and felt like I was going to pass out and said I can’t do this anymore.” Cameron jokes, “Summer ended, and we realized it was almost like a game show where we put 20 teenagers on a bus and see who can go batshit crazy first, and I’d like to announce that I won.”
It’s that reminder to us, the viewer, that they are just kids who put a whole movement on their shoulders, including all those who wanted to take pictures with them and idolize them. All those who wanted them to relive their trauma, so they feel better about their own. And also all those who saw them on television or while reading the dark pages of Reddit and 4chan, and wanted to harm them. It is a lot, and Us Kids knowingly or unknowingly is telling us the pressure we are putting on our youngest generation is far too great.
Cameron eloquently argues with a counter-protestor who claims that Cameron and his fellow bus mates are puppets by saying, “The puzzle piece you are missing is that I put me in the media. I went out there where I knew the cameras were, and I stood in front of them and said, ‘You know what? Let me tell you what happened.’ Because you know what the worst thing that could happen, happened, I don’t know if you ever read comic books, but if you look at the alternative universes, we are in the worst one. I could be at summer camp right now; the thing is people are dead.”
They organized and got on that bus because the worst thing happened to them, and in many ways, we let them down. We let them down before the shooting by letting the shooting happen in the first place. And we let them down after by not worrying about their trauma and their mental health. I watched Us Kids not necessary in awe of what they have been able to accomplish, which I am, but rather upset that I haven’t done enough. Emma, David, Jaclyn, and Cameron jumped into activism because that’s what they needed to do to heal and to some degree, it helped them, but I was left feeling that that’s not what has healed them, but instead, it was leaning on one another that has helped them heal. It’s their friendship that has helped them heal. It’s those moments when they can still be just kids together that helped them heal.
“I didn’t follow any of the parkland students,” Bria Smith tells us. “I didn’t follow the movement. When I saw all the media coverage and celebrities posting, reposting, I thought, ‘what about all the kids of color being shot and killed every single day?” Unlike the students from the affluent town of Parkland, Florida, Bria Smith, who grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, around gun violence. Trees in her neighborhood stand as memorials for kids who are shot dead. She, in many ways, was an unlikely kid to join the March for Our Lives bus tour. But the Parkland kids inspired her.
“To be honest, I was so done with white people,” Bria says. “I know that sounds so aggressive and unfair to say. At my school, January of last year, someone posted white and colored above our water fountains. I was so upset with race.” Bria attend the March for Our Lives event in her town as a panelist, and that’s when she realized there is something bigger here, “I remember we walked in and all these people, I was like ‘oh I didn’t know it was this important to hear about gun violence in our community because I’ve been to town halls where ten people would show up.”
Following her panel, she was invited to join the bus on their stop. She thought it would be a quick three-day trip, but she ended up staying on the bus for two months. She reasoned that “it was two different communities, but we were sharing one thing in common. It was the trauma. it was the sadness.” Bria found a community and friendships with people she thought she was done with. She was able to heal with the help of people like Emma.
At the end of the bus tour, the kids sit around the fire roasting marshmallows on the beach of Orange City, California, talking about what they miss at home. Another moment where the filmmakers remind us that these are just kids who like all kids love horse playing on the beach and roasting marshmallows. Bria tells her friend she misses her mom and her bed, but you can tell there is sadness in her that the bus tour is over. It is clear what Emma, David, Cameron, Jaclyn, and the many other organizers of March for Our Lives gave Bria purpose. Her friendship, especially with Emma, gave her the ability to heal by giving her a community to do so and life purpose.
Us Kids is a coming-of-age documentary about the importance of friendship. It is a scary world out there, especially for kids these days. It is especially hard to navigate it alone. Us Kids teaches us that the only way we can heal is to heal together. Sam needed Alex. Alex needed Sam. Sam needed Emma. Emma needed David. David needed Emma. Emma needed Bria. Bria needed Emma. And so on. Us Kids is also a story about how we needed them. We needed them to step up and start a movement. We needed them to help us heal. Us Kids should be mandatory viewing for all high school students and their parents. We owe it to each other to be better to one another, to be more empathetic to one another, and to encourage one another to get up every morning and move.
We owe it to them and to ourselves to join their movement.