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Anyone who is familiar with the work of Luca Guadagnino knows that he is a master of dreamlike, voyeuristic cinema. This is most notably documented in 2017’s Oscar-winning Call Me By Your Name, but it can be found in every corner of his filmography over the course of nearly 25 years, from A Bigger Splash to his 2019 short film The Staggering Girl and even his upcoming cannibal romance Bones & All. The Italian filmmaker’s penchant for approaching life in a tender, non-judgemental way is no better showcased than in his 8-part limited series We Are Who We Are. Centering on a young American abroad with his family as he spends the summer on a journey of self-discovery, the series isn’t entirely unlike Call Me By Your Name. The biggest difference is that while Call Me By Your Name basks in the nostalgic quality of its 1980s setting, We Are We Who We Are is rooted in the near distant past of 2016, as marked by clips of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on the campaign trails in the background.
In the first episode, we meet Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer), a bleach blonde military brat who sports painted nails and leopard-print shorts, reads Ocean Vuong, and listens to Frank Ocean. His mother, Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), is a newly-minted commander who has relocated him and her wife, Army physician Maggie (Alice Braga), to a sun-drenched Army base in Chioggia, Italy—the most American you can get without actually being in America. It’s quickly established that the family has an unusual, oftentimes unsettling dynamic. At one point early on, Sarah nurses Fraser with sips of alcohol, and later he sucks her finger when she cuts herself and slaps her across the face when she slices his beef too thick.
The second episode shifts its perspective to Caitlin Poythress (Jordan Kristine Seamón), who has lived at the base longer, with her MAGA hat-wearing father, Richard (Scott Mescudi a.k.a. Kid Cudi), her Nigerian-American mother, Jenny (Faith Alabi), and older brother, Danny (Spence Moore III). While she’s considerably popular, often spending her free time on the beach with a tight-knit group of friends, she’s also quiet and bored. The first time Fraser sees Caitlin, it’s at a bar where she’s dressed up as a boy while flirting with a young Italian woman. Fraser and Caitlin are both grappling with being outsiders; they’re kindred spirits who bring out the good in each other, with Fraser being the only person to see and understand Caitlin’s relationship with gender. Their formative friendship, which many tease as being romantic due to their closeness, easily remains one of the strongest elements of the series, perfectly encompassed in the finale as they escape to a Dev Hynes concert (a shout-out to the series’ composer) in Bologna on Caitlin’s last day on the base during wintertime.
After letting us get to know the central duo in the first episode, the series expands its focus to factor in a larger ensemble composed of their family, friends, and other people that cross their paths, including Caitlin’s best friend Britney (Francesca Scorsese, daughter of Martin) and Jonathan (Tom Mercier), an older major who catches Fraser’s attention. For nearly eight hours, the series weaves in and out of their complicated lives, taking a grounded approach to exploring grief, sexuality, and power, among many other things.
Despite its title, the series presents its characters constantly in flux as they navigate their identities in search for their authentic selves. We are merely observers in their world, learning new pieces of information about them as they uncover more about themselves and each other. The characters are always surprising in different ways, none one-dimensional, and all truthfully portrayed, resulting in personalities that are layered and relatable but sometimes unnerving. It can generally be difficult to get to the core of understanding teenagers and their complexities, but Guadagnino does so with a rawness and intimacy that makes me believe We Are Who We Are may be the most honest depiction of Gen Z put to screen. He recognizes that, in the world of a 14-year-old, every detail and event is monumental, no matter how small or seemingly dismissive they may appear.
With the episodic format, Guadagnino and company (co-creators and writers Sean Conway, Paolo Giordano, and Francesca Manieri) are given much more freedom and space to expand on his vibes-forward storytelling. It brings to mind Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep released earlier this year, another show helmed by a European auteur who turned to the limited series structure to expand upon his ambitious vision, in his case a meta remake of his 1996 film of the same name. While Irma Vep and We Are Who We Are greatly differ in pacing and plot, both are perfect examples of how seamlessly cinematic elements can be translated to the serialized form. The series is nothing short of being a lush and sensuous snapshot of an Italian summer, remaining cinematic at its core as it moves at a leisurely pace while maintaining your attention in this all-encompassing world. With We Are Who We Are, he crafts something that is entirely loose in plot but rich in organic character development and meaning.
There are dozens of TV shows that tackle the various issues that arise and linger throughout adolescence, many of which I have written about for this very publication, but I have yet to see one that portrays them in such a human way more perfectly than We Are Who We Are does. The most popular and beloved teen dramas of our time, from The O.C. and Gossip Girl to Never Have I Ever and even Skins, thrive in dramatic narratives that quickly pivot from issue to issue, covering sexuality in one episode and substance abuse in the next as if making their way through a checklist. It’s rare, then, for something to come along that deeply cares about the identity of its characters as they explore their desires and place in the world. It may be a cop out to bring up the comparisons made to Euphoria back when We Are Who We Are was first released, but given that both are told through unfiltered lenses (and both air on HBO), the comparisons are nearly inescapable. But whereas Euphoria feels forced in its approach to capturing teen experiences in gritty and heightened ways for the sake of provoking reactions, We Are Who We Are thrives in liminal space, and the fluidity and mundanity of life.
Airing on HBO in the midst of the pandemic in 2020 following the success of Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria, Guadagnino’s first and only foray into television to date should have been poised to receive an overwhelming amount of love, but two years on it continues to largely fly under the radar beyond the scope of devoted cinephiles. We Are Who We Are is an achingly poetic, escapist portrait and celebration of chaotic youth, and there’s no better person to have crafted it than one of our finest filmmakers. It may very well be his greatest work to date.
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Jihane Bousfiha is an entertainment writer based in Florida. When she’s not watching or writing about TV and films, you can find her tweeting about all-things pop culture on Twitter @jihanebousfiha__.
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