I By Ria Woodburn
Director Luca Guadagnino describes his first venture into television, We Are Who We Are (2020), as an ‘immersive experience’. The seasoned Italian filmmaker, whose acclaimed Call Me By Your Name (2017) received an Academy Award and a BAFTA for the best-adapted screenplay, has executed the same passionate zeal as his feature films in this eight-episode production. Set against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s 2016 inauguration, this HBO collaboration is filmed in the confinements of a US army barracks stationed in Velluto, Italy. We Are Who We Are gives us a stylishly explosive adolescent drama, that is firmly character-led whilst delivering a successful dual protagonist narrative.
Fourteen-year-old Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer) catapults onto the screen, a firework of fashion, eccentricity, and with an excellent soundtrack as he navigates his new life in Italy. When his mother Sarah (Chloe Sevigny) is assigned as the replacement US Colonel for the army base, he is forced to move from New York along with his stepmother Maggie (Alice Braga). Fraser’s protests of this upheaval are raucous. As he explores the military base, he stumbles onto the replica American high school full of bright-eyed mainstream students at odds with their Italian setting. However, one student catches his eye, the popular and visually striking Caitlin Poythress (Jordan Kristina Seamòn). Fixating onto her group of friends, Fraser is spellbound whilst Catlin, an unlikely friend choice is wary of him at first. But after Caitlin starts to secretly explore her gender fluidity, a part of her that she isn’t ready to show to the rest of the world, she and Fraser bond and he becomes her gateway to self-acceptance. The spark between our two protagonists ignites, and their journeys are aligned.
“If it’s difficult to identify a protagonist then maybe the story is about more than one person, but it will always be the person the audience care about the most.” (Yorke, 2013)
The first two episodes act out the same day, the first from Fraser’s perspective and the second from Caitlin’s. This no-nonsense approach to setting up our protagonists gives us a clear projection- there is no doubt who will be our leads. Within this plot direction, the similarities between Fraser and Caitlin begin to arise. Both teenagers still feeling the comfort of being a child, as they plunge into the depths of adulthood; are sharply aware of what they will be leaving behind and what they are gaining. Both are adored by their parents, which ruptures into unrealistic expectations of what their families desire for them. Coupled with the pressures of their social circle they act out their anxieties with partying, sexual exploration, underage drinking, and substance abuse. Their friends made up of military and Italian youngsters, reverberate their rebellion as they experience the same teenage insecurities. Naturally, with these similarities, come Fraser’s and Caitlin’s differences which give them both the space to grow. Caitlin teaches Fraser about empathy and the strength of altruism, as he opens her up to individuality and the beauty of self-acceptance.
“The greatest screenplays contain numerous amounts of what I call mirroring. The more we can mirror each other the better our communication” (Lee, 2013)
This overriding synchronicity between our two heroes is fundamental, as they confront their own inciting incidents, desires, and conflicts together. Guadagnino along with his fellow writers Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri has created a blueprint for dual protagonists, which can be utilised not just in the context of a drama but also in other genres.
Having two mutually exclusive main characters enables the writers to maximise audience participation, as it gives double the journey and two leads to care about. It also allows the theme of identity, which is the building block of the series, to be explored deeper through the narratives of each protagonist. The search for identity and the validation of self is continually a pivotal force that drives the motives of all the characters forward in We Are Who We Are, which reaches a pinnacle through Fraser’s and Caitlin’s experiences.
However, Guadagnino’s commitment to his characters doesn’t stop with our protagonists, as the series also stands out with its range of secondary character arcs that are typically reserved for protagonists. Some arcs are more evident than others, but no matter the breadth of the journey, pieces of their inner selves are revealed. Although they are affected by Fraser and Caitlin’s actions, we skilfully see these secondary characters exist outside of their world.
This is seen in Maggie and the affair which she instigates with Caitlin’s mother Jenny. With both wives side-lined by their military partners, despite being integral to their advancement, it is difficult not to root for this illicit couple and their potential future together. But in the final episode, we learn that Maggie is a serial adulterer, which her wife Sarah unwillingly accepts – and although there is no sincerity in her feelings for Jenny, she does have complete devotion to her wife and stepson. These snapshots into the secondary character lives reveal the intricate detail in which We Are Who We Are delves, to support the strength of its overall narrative. The writers also regularly give the viewer the chance to challenge their perceptions of all the characters, which can alter from episode to episode.
“Minor characters can serve four purposes within a screenplay: to instigate, illuminate, imitate and innovate.” (Batty & Waldeback 2008)
This investment into the secondary characters also benefits Fraser’s and Caitlin’s transformation, by intensifying their antagonistic pulls. Working through these obstacles with family and friends may only present mini victories but can subtly increase the adversity and can be symbolic of wider social issues. Caitlin is her father’s favourite but after shaving her head and adopting a male persona, whilst she explores her gender transition, the tension between them mounts up.
Richard's traditional outdated stereotypes are challenged, as he scrambles to defend his position and uphold his viewpoint. Caitlin’s new self-discovery becomes a trigger for Richard who is struggling with his position in the military, as he clashes with having to respect a new female commander in Sarah. On a personal level, Richard is a parent with little understanding of the LGBTQ community, and in a wider context, he represents how this lack of perception can lead to social discrimination. This dramatic tension with Caitlin’s father could have been limited without setting up his story beforehand. Cleverly the establishing of his character gives an insight into his motives that determine his actions. Richard's issues are not really with his daughter Caitlin, but his own personal crisis of identity.
“We Are Who We Are is about identity, in fact, it precisely tries to focus on how we make our identity change constantly throughout what we fear, desire and wish for ourselves.” Luca Guadagnino
It would be misleading to label We Are Who We Are as just another coming of age drama, although at first glance at its teenage cast it might appear that way. Rooted in identity, the series is multi-faceted and explores a range of subjects from sexuality, gender, race, misogyny, religious extremism, and sexism. Kindly asked by the US Military for it not to go ahead, the series deals with contentious topics through the eyes of vulnerable fourteen-year-olds and their adult guardians, who are battling their own internal plights. However, the writers have mastered a way of unmasking these obstacles through their highly developed characters and adapting a dual protagonist narrative that runs parallel to each other.
Though Fraser and Caitlin are different, they are essentially two sides of the same coin. We Are Who We Are represents a uniqueness in writing that is fully committed to its level of audience engagement, capturing the evolution of all its characters on screen, no matter how small. Guadagnino is right to describe the series as immersive, the lives of his characters are personal, and you can’t help but feel the ripple effects of their actions and emotional junctures. But most significantly We Are Who We Are gives us as a viewer a place to reflect on our own identity, what it means to us and, how we see it in other people.
BATTY, Craig and Zara WALDEBACK. 2008. Writing for the Screen: Creative and Critical Approaches. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
HACK, Jefferson. 2020. Luca Guadagnino in Conversation with Jefferson Hack [online interview]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0LfBFHIAoI [accessed 6th January 2021]. HBO. 2020. We Are Who We Are: Luca Guadagnino on Creating We Are Who We Are [promotional material]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwhpovbIml0 [accessed 6th January 2021]. LEE, Jason. 2013. The Psychology of Screenwriting: Theory and Practice. New York: Bloomsbury. YORKE, John. 2013. Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. London: Penguin Random House.
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Ria is a graduate of Falmouth University's MA Writing for Script and Screen programme where she earned a first-class honours degree. A horror and thriller enthusiast, these are her preferred genres to write. Regularly updating her blog, she is currently writing a gothic horror and resides in the Midlands, UK.
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