Features and Columns · TV

Luca Guadagnino’s Latest is an Unpredictable Coming-of-Age TV Series

The HBO series ‘We Are Who We Are’ is engaging, imperfect, and sure to inspire discussion.
We Are Who We Are
By  · Published on September 12th, 2020

Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer takes a look at HBO’s new series from Luca Guadagnino, We Are Who We Are.

Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are is a moody coming-of-age tale set in Italy and drenched in sunshine, but fans of the director should take note: this is no Call Me By Your Name. The eight-episode first season follows two neighboring families living on an American military base in 2016. Its dual protagonists are erratic, stylish outcast Fraser Wilson (IT and Shazam!’s Jack Dylan Grazer) and observant, self-assured Caitlin Harper (newcomer Jordan Kristine Seamon). Fraser’s unpredictable mother, military commander Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), and her wife, Maggie (Alice Braga) are countered by the more traditional Harper family, whose patriarch, Richard (Scott Mescudi, better known as Kid Cudi) dons a MAGA hat while his Nigerian wife, Jenny (Faith Alabi), bakes cakes and watches American weather reports.

We Are Who We Are is as tactile and mesmerizing as all of Guadagnino’s best work, but where Call Me By Your Name thrives on controlled passion and Suspiria meticulously tells a multi-layered story, this often tips into chaos. In a recent New York Times interview, the writer/director mentions that once he met his lead actors, he tossed his original plans for the series and decided to “follow the characters” in a more spontaneous approach to filmmaking. This is evident in the final product, for better or for worse. At times, We Are Who We Are has the beautiful specificity of an adolescent memory, capturing the feeling of a party gone on too long or a daring summer night where anything seems possible. At other times, it’s off-putting and anxiety-inducing.

Much of the series’ success balances on Grazer’s performance, which is as engrossing as it is impossible to pin down. Fraser is a roiling bundle of impulses, many of which don’t match up with his new friends’ more stereotypical teen desires. He stares at the nude bodies of the men he sees in the base locker room but is equally entranced by books of poetry and the blurry candid photos of Caitlin that he surreptitiously snaps. His emotions balance on a knife blade, ready to tilt toward full-body joy or erupt into a jolting rage. In the first episode, Guadagnino directs Fraser’s point-of-view with an almost disorienting closeness; we hear what he hears, ignore what he ignores, and can almost feel the sun on his skin and the liquor in his veins. Later attempts to capture that same subjectivity with other characters never quite work as well.

If Fraser were the series’ only powder keg, it might pull off the spontaneous, gutsy vision of adolescence that it seems to be going for, yet it possesses an undercurrent of danger that can’t be shaken. Several characters edge towards or explode into casual violence, while others — including the two lead actors, both underage at the time of filming — wander through aimlessly hedonistic scenes that will surely polarize audiences. Even the more benign teen characters have a strange tendency to willfully enact control over one another in minor ways, demanding a friend walk or dance or jump, then relinquishing when their interest changes course.

It’s impossible not to place We Are Who We Are in conversation with HBO’s other controversial teen series, Euphoria, yet without the latter’s overly-stylized aesthetic, we’re often left with a series of messy situations shot straight on in the light of day. This may be intentional, as the show’s military backdrop cultivates a sense of conformity and violence that colors every character’s psychology. The result, purposely or not, is a coming-of-age story that will leave some viewers feeling queasy rather than exhilarated.

Each episode of the four that are available for review scrapes the surface of Guadagnino’s singular, surprising characters a little more. Caitlin, whose pensive demeanor naturally makes her a less flashy protagonist than outburst-prone Fraser, is reshaping her world through experiments with gender presentation. A scene in which she catches Fraser watching her as she studies herself in the mirror, trying on his clothes, hits on the deeper ache at the series’ heart. “You do not want to nail yourself to a sense of self that is unmovable,” Guadagnino tells the New York Times, and this may well be the truth the series aims to excavate. Both teens seem a little like someone new each week, and supporting characters echo a common refrain, facing inevitable changes in identity with strong and varied emotions.

There’s more to unpack here, from some silly-deep throwaway lines to camera snapshots that frame teendom as a sort of ever-evolving photo album, but in the end, the title says it all. We Are Who We Are is an intriguing and destabilizing entry into Guadagnino’s filmography, a lush, chaotic, unapologetic deep dive into identity that is what it is whether you like it or not.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)