We Are Who We Are (2020)

Luca Guadagnino | 8 episodes (49min – 1hr 15min)

For a setting that is so inherently political, the occupants of the American military base that We Are Who We Are takes place within are surprisingly silent on matters of worldly importance. Maybe it is the distance between its foreign location in Italy and the current affairs back home that creates this divide. Maybe it is the nature of 2016’s radicalised culture wars that make not talking about the upcoming election the easier option. Or perhaps it is the inescapable omnipresence of politics in every facet of their lives which makes it so invisible to them, especially for the children who take their privilege for granted. While Guadagnino laces excerpts of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s election campaigns all through the background of his eight-episode series, questions of sexuality and identity arise among the American teenagers in the foreground, containing them in a bubble that they would like to believe completely insulates from the pressures of the outside world.

Fraser and his two mothers are the newest additions to this small community of expat Americans, with Jack Dylan Grazer filling in the equivalent Timothée Chalamet role from Call Me By Your Name as the central teenager exploring his place in an unfamiliar world. This character is not simply a repeat of what we have already seen though – Fraser is a little thornier to wrestle with than Elio, at best coming off as a peculiar non-conformist, and at worst being outright abusive to his parents. With his baggy shorts, bleached hair, and earphones that rarely leave his ears, he comes off as an idiosyncratic figure among his peers, completely disinterested in anything besides fashion, music, and the subjects of the photos he randomly takes on his phone. As it turns out, one of those subjects is his neighbour, Caitlin, who for the first episode is little more than an enigma to him.

Fraser and Caitlin, a pair of rich, complex characters at the centre of Guadagnino’s series. Even when the series feels like it is wandering a little aimlessly, these are the two main constants pulling us through.

As Guadagnino brings in the second episode, he brilliantly switches our perspective away from Fraser, and swiftly broadens the scope of the series by replaying the events we have already seen through Caitlin’s eyes. Her family occupies a strange space in this community, being both African-American and Trump supporters, thus creating an even smaller bubble of conservatism within the military base that largely keeps politics out of polite conversation. Like Call Me By Your Name, there is no strong narrative pull here, but Guadagnino instead spends time examining the nuances of Fraser and Caitlin’s unusual relationship which sits somewhere between romantic and platonic attraction. There is a touch of Richard Linklater’s wandering dialogue present in their affectatious discussions of art and life, but Guadagnino rejects any hyper-critical judgements of these self-absorbed teenagers, and instead recognises them as intelligent yet imperfect works in progress.

While Fraser and Caitlin’s loved ones at times express frustration towards their strange, unconventional love, there is a carefree joy in seeing Fraser and Caitlin develop at their own pace throughout the series. In a set of recurring overhead shots, we often find ourselves looking down at them in a dinghy, isolating them in their own microcosm and delicately capturing the sweet bond that sees her softness and his adventurous spirit gradually bleed into each other over time. Most significantly, we see both embrace an exploration of their gender identities, with Fraser helping Caitlin develop a masculine expression of herself that she feels is more authentic.

At times, Guadagnino finds that these moments of pure elation cannot simply be contained within a moving image though, and so he often makes the choice to freeze on joyful frames of spontaneous dances and significant haircuts, calling to mind Francois Truffaut’s use of the technique in his seminal coming-of-age film, The 400 Blows. These lively experimentations are small but effective stylistic touches, etching these still pictures into the memories of its characters, and formally tying in with the slow-motion action and long takes that similarly manipulate our perception of time.

Freeze frames lifting images out of time and etching them into our minds like nostalgic memories. It’s hard not to think of The 400 Blows.
A slow-motion food fight, playing with our perception of time – this period of Fraser’s life could go on forever.

Perhaps We Are Who We Are’s finest moments though arrive as a pair of shots in episodes 4 and 7, both of which track the camera for several minutes through a Russian manor where Fraser and his friends gather to party. The first is a joyful but bittersweet farewell for Craig who is about to be deployed the next morning, evolving into an unruly, uninhibited orgy. The second acts as a direct mirror to that, as we move through the destruction this same group of teenagers are now wreaking on the mansion out of grief for their deceased friend. A grand piano is rolled through a window, the kitchen is smashed up, and rain angrily beats down outside, marking an inevitable turn in this episodic story towards the darkness that awaits these characters in adulthood.

Wonderful form in the repetition of long takes set in the Russian manor – the first an orgy pouring out lust and excitement, the second unleashing huge amounts of rage and grief.

It is no coincidence that the terrorist attack on Craig’s convoy plays out in unison with Trump’s election win either. Such complicated emotions can’t be held off forever, and even the students at school aren’t quite sure what to say in counselling sessions that turn to controversial discussions of America’s foreign interventions, torturing enemy soldiers, and ill-timed facts about body bags being filled with rocks.

Perhaps the shagginess of Guadagnino’s storytelling can be attributed a little to his dealing with difficult subject matter, as his attempts at ambiguity often come off as uncertainty instead, leaving several loose threads hanging that he never returns to. With the final episode dedicated almost entirely to paying off on Fraser and Harper’s sweet relationship, we are left to wonder about their parents and friends who have all suffered in their own ways, and never quite find the same resolution. This sort of long-form filmmaking may not lend itself well to tightly constructed narrative arcs, but for Guadanigno’s complicated characters at least, We Are Who We Are’s gentle, wandering pace allows them all the time they need to peel back their inhibitions, discovering authentic self-expressions which might have some hope of flourishing hundreds of miles away from home.

The strongest composition of the series comes towards the end of the strongest episode of the series. Episode 4 is dedicated to Craig’s farewell before his deployment, and here Guadagnino sets his camera back to view the mess of bodies lying peacefully across the living room, framing a gorgeous sunrise in the background.

We Are Who We Are is currently streaming on SBS On Demand, and is available to buy on iTunes.

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