⚠ Spoilers ahead
There are two scenes in this movie which astonished me.
The first one is the opening scene. It features the beginning of a music class which is interrupted by an armed student from the school who proceeds to shoot the teacher and other students. It is such an impactful beginning because it is so wonderfully directed and played. The teacher, played by Maria Dizzia, is so nice. She looks kind, professional, level-ahead. Out of a minute a screen-time, and with just a few mundane lines, this character is already so likable, you hope that she will play a role in the rest of the movie, and you are eager to discover what it is. When the killer enters the room, he is filmed from behind, so you don't see that he is carrying a weapon. As far as we can tell, he is lost, or maybe late for class. But the face of the teacher, terrified and shocked at his sight, is an indication that something is wrong. What about this student could possibly upset such a seemingly composed teacher? We don't have the time to think of an answer before she gets shot. This is a truly horrific moment, and the brilliant directing conveys the horror authentically. A movie starting like that has my entire attention from this point on.
The second scene happens near the end of the movie. Celeste, another victim from the same shooting who has suffered a non-fatal injury to her neck, is now a big pop-star. In fact, she has been noticed by a music producer when, after the shooting, she sung a song as a tribute to the victims. A few years later, the famous Celeste is now a cynic, often disrespectful, depraved pop singer.
In this scene I liked, Celeste has been doing drugs with her manager, just before a big live performance, and she is having an emotional break-down. It is filmed in one long take, in her dressing room, while her sister tries to comfort her. She says something of high importance, I think, which is that "they" can be so mean to her. "They" being, most likely, her detractors among the general public. It is important for two reasons. Firstly because it is most likely true, as any show-business star is inevitably the target of ferocious criticism and mockery, especially those who has been pictured in scandals of debauchery. Secondly because it is very hypocritical of her to say such thing to her sister, since no later than the previous afternoon she has been terribly mean to her, saying that she was a retard. Her sister doesn't pick up on the hypocrisy, she continues to comfort her. Celeste is destroyed, harmless, hopeless. One of the most accomplished role of Natalie Portman in my opinion, not only this scene, but the entire role.
What I get from this scene is that the way Celeste deals with spitefulness from her detractors is by wearing an armor of nastiness herself. The only way she has found not to adsorb the hate is by reflecting it all around her, making her an unbearable person. The only time she drops her guard is when she experiences the fall-out of an heroin trip. There she isn't mean anymore, she isn't even confident. She just cries from the suffering of all the crap she has to put it with.
The movie has received some criticism for its sense-less structure (is it about school shootings or is it about pop stars?) as well as lack of clear morale (what is the lesson to learn here?). I have no problem about any of those points. First, I'm alright with absurdism. For example, the fact that the Titanic sunk for real should not be fundamental to how good the movie Titanic is, even when it's a love story with a boat that sinks at the end, which would be completely far-fetched from a story-telling architectural perspective. Second, I'm also comfortable with morale-less movies. In fact I especially like movies which don't take a stand as I find pushing any sort of ideology to be a crude way to tell a story; it usually over-simplifies the raw information that the story contains.
That being said, it's possible that there might actually be structure and morale in Vox Lux. Even though we have no information about the school shooter from the beginning, we can reasonably imagine that his profile is similar to real cases. That is, the student likely was persecuted, rejected or mocked by others. In short, they were mean to him. I can't help to draw a parallel between Celeste and the shooter's reaction to unkindness from others. Both reflect it around them by being violent themselves. Both end up wanting to make a big show about it. For the shooter it is catastrophic and gruesome. For Celeste it is artistic and electric. Those scenes respectively open and close the movie. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned from the movie, and it is as simple as: be kind. Of course, this is a banality, but that doesn't make it any less true. Just as the content of any pop song.