This is a mostly spoiler-free review of HBO’s We Are Who We Are, created by Luca Guadagnino.
After remaking Dario Argento’s occult dance horror Suspiria, Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino returns with his first television series, We Are Who We Are, a wandering endless summer among teens. For those familiar with Call Me By Your Name, his HBO show explores similar themes: teens discovering their identity, hormonal horniness, and the mundanity of American expats living in Italy. Set on a military base in 2016, We Are Who We Are follows two teens — Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Caitlin Harper (Jordan Kristine Seamon) — who are coming of age.
Even with the familiar guide of Call Me By Your Name, the show’s conceit withers under its myopic lens. The premiere, “Right Here, Right Now I” (each episode carries the same title) tracks Fraser restlessly wandering the base for hijinks, and though he won’t admit it, for friends. Fraser, an androgynous kid with semi-bleached hair and black-and-yellow colored nails, arrives on the American base with his two mothers: Sarah (Chloë Sevigny) and Maggie (Alice Braga) — more on them later — heartbroken that he’s left his friend Mark in New York. Through Fraser we meet Caitlin, a confident girl who, on the surface, appears to be his complete opposite.
Guadagnino, and his co-writers Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri, struggle to build out the supporting characters around Fraser and Caitlin. Though Sarah and Maggie are two women in a committed relationship, with thriving careers in a military that once instituted Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the lens rarely points their way unless Fraser occupies their space. Confoundingly, their family nucleus is far-fetched. Fraser and Sarah share an overly close relationship, something bordering on an Oedipus Complex, except the young teen loves Maggie — the gentler parent — too. Fraser is often abusive; in one scene he viciously slaps Sarah, yet still culls affection from her. The idea of a stern base commander as a laissez-faire mother slapped around, and totally at the behest of her young teenage son, while her dutiful wife watches, never tracks.
We Are Who We Are Gallery
The show suffers from other thin characters, too. While we learn that Caitlin loves wearing boy clothes, refers to herself under the gender-neutral name of Harper, and is especially close with her army father Richard (Kid Cudi), the people around her lack complexity. For instance, Caitlin’s older brother Danny suffers from depression and anger issues — he doesn’t care for his sister’s perceived promiscuity — but the only explanation given for such frustration comes from “loving God.” We also learn that Caitlin’s cheery Nigerian mother, Jennifer (Faith Alabi), was once Muslim. Are we meant to assume his rage stems from his religion? The answers linger just out of sight. Caitlin’s father Richard — who she lovingly spars with — operates a motorboat with her, and the pair perform smuggling missions. But his sternness, and covert homophobia, do not make a three-dimensional character. Instead, her family is composed of interesting ideas, but nothing fully thought through.
Even the center of the series — the teens — lack any defining characteristics other than their horniness. And We Are Who We Are is an extremely horny show. Every teen is involved in some lover’s quarrel. Caitlin’s boyfriend Sam (Ben Taylor) is extremely possessive, yet mostly mopes when his affections aren’t reciprocated. Her best friend Britney (Francesca Scorsese) is openly interested in pretty much everyone: Sam, Enrico (whose sole character traits are his interest in Britney and his Veneto heritage), and Fraser — who the group often refers to as t-shirt, due to him not removing his shirt while at the beach. Other characters possess even less dynamism, such as Danny’s best friend Craig, a soldier in his twenties attracted to Caitlin, and hanging with teens.
The four episodes provided to critics are also without true arcs. They meander like the teens, with a feeling of ennui during an endless summer. By the time audiences arrive at the rudderless fourth episode, involving a wedding between two characters who have rarely appeared together in the show, nothing feels remotely earned. In fact, episode four features zero character development among the thrusting dancing bodies partying in the commandeered white modernist home of a rich Russian. The lurid images of teen libido and full-frontal nudity try to buoy the weak storytelling, but the entire scene is just useless debauchery.
No one can fault Guadagnino for the visuals. We Are Who We Are bursts with evocative tracking shots and pans, and striking tableaus. Guadagnino builds out Fraser’s character by capturing, through pans, the posters dedicated to The Last Tango in Paris, Blue Velvet, and Klaus Nomi hanging on his wall. Often, the director employs freeze frames of characters during the height of their happiness, as if to trap them in the amber of youth. And the way he juxtaposes the manicured suburban image of a man mowing his lawn with the distant screams of an altercation, or when he contrasts Caitlin reading Leaves of Grass while soldiers talk of gang rape on the other side of a wall, explains the two competing realities of the regimented base.
And of course, what’s a Guadagnino work without a dance sequence? In this instance, it’s Caitlin grooving to Raf’s Self Control. But amongst the images and dialogue, there is no meaningful conflict. No provoking incident that binds the swirl of sunny beaches and teen sex together to signify anything meaningful.
The pull of Guadagnino recapturing Call Me By Your Name, except in eight hour-long episodes — of which four were given for review — might entice viewers with the same aura of a warm of Italian beach, but the result is uneven and maddening. Though the entire cast offers max effort — especially Glazer as the introverted Fraser; Seamon as the bold but mysterious Harper; and Cudi in the role of taciturn father — the writing doesn’t offer the avenues needed for them to fully explore their characters. Showrunning demands a different skill set than filmmaking, and not all of Guadagnino’s masterful abilities come to the fore, here.
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