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.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

Emerald Fennell | 1hr 48min

Emerald Fennell’s steady hand over comedy, drama, thriller, and romantic conventions makes for a brilliantly adventurous screenplay in Promising Young Woman, as she pulls off wildly swinging tonal and genre shifts with poise and self-assured control. In a reflection of the competing identities of our leading woman, Cassie, these disparate elements constantly appear to be on the brink of derailing the entire film, and yet the film spectacularly lands twist after twist in an angry, candy-coloured balancing act.

Carey Mulligan fits perfectly in with Fennell’s narrative rollercoaster as Cassie, displaying an ability to turn a scene on its head with a single, well-timed line. As the coffee shop waitress and part-time con artist pursues vengeance against those who bury their guilt beneath mountains of excuses, and simultaneously tries to work her way back into a lighter world that she has been sceptical of for years, an aggrieved sensitivity begins to emerging from beneath her cool, sardonic exterior. When her conflicting priorities finally become too much to bear, her indignant rage bursts forth in an interaction with a rude driver, smashing their windshield while Fennell spins the camera around her in an impassioned, isolating whirlwind of vengeance. When the car finally speeds away, we meet her at the dead centre of the image in this moment of bitter triumph, the strings swelling as a train passes directly behind her. Without uttering a single line, we recognise the emotional toll that her quest has taken – even the most perfect acts of retribution do little to settle the disturbed anger of the avenger.

Even when Cassie appears vulnerable, she remains centre-frame, in perfect control of the situation.

This symmetrical, centred framing becomes a recurring device for Fennell, giving Cassie the sort of authority that lets her dominate both her victims’ attention and our own. Some of these shots place circular objects just over or around her head like halos, such as in her meeting with her old schoolmate, Madison, where a sole, red lamp sits directly above her crown. In these compositions, Fennell paints her out as some sort of avenging angel on an angry, righteous quest, and indeed the final song of the film, “Angel of the Morning”, brings that motif to a satisfying close. When there are lapses in these perfectly aligned shots, there are similarly lapses in her power, with Fennell gradually shifting Mulligan just off-centre to disorientate us in this narrative that we have been led to believe she possesses total control over.

The one red light fixture in this restaurant framing Cassie as an Angel of Vengeance on a righteous mission for justice.
Even more halos in the imagery, sometimes saint-like, sometimes demonic.

As Cassie’s structured plan unfolds in bright pink tally marks, we are privy to a huge range of reactions from her victims being confronted with their past transgressions. Though the details of the sickening injustice which was enacted upon Cassie’s friend, Nina, remain hazy for a good while, it is clear that they all took some part in perpetuating it, and that it has turned Cassie into this untrusting, angry woman we know today.

Such details aren’t all that necessary though, as it is just in the way Cassie speaks about Nina that we come to know this fully-formed character whose invisible presence hangs heavy over everyone else’s lives. We see her in the way Cassie grieves, not just for the loss of a friend, but the loss of a woman with something to contribute to the world. She touchingly appears with a full personality in the memories Cassie shares with Mrs Fisher, reminiscing how she forced a boy who stole her mother’s vase to bring it back and apologise. And most tragically, we come to know the hollow, “squeezed out” person that Nina eventually became, who Cassie was forced to watch disintegrate into a name tossed around as a joke. This underlying darkness persists even through the lighter moments of Promising Young Woman, and yet Fennell never falters in weaving such harsh depictions of trauma around gentle nostalgia and dark humour to create this moving, thrilling, and brilliantly incisive black comedy.

Promising Young Woman is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.