'We Are Who We Are': TV Review

'We Are Who We Are'
Yannis Drakoulidis

Jordan Kristine Seamón and Jack Dylan Grazer in 'We Are Who We Are'

Smartly layered and ripe with potential.
9/14/2020

Luca Guadagnino's HBO drama follows two American teens coming of age in picturesque Italy.

The setting of the new HBO series We Are Who We Are — a fictional American army base in northeastern Italy, where nobody feels like they belong — is so steeped in narrative potential that almost any of its characters could make for a compelling protagonist. Created, directed and co-written by Luca Guadagnino, the show initially follows 14-year-old Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer), an artsy, temperamental kid from New York who appears destined for isolation and alienation in the conservative milieu of the base.

But the naturalistic eight-part drama could just as easily center on Fraser’s mom Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), a queer colonel tasked with overseeing the troubled base, but who seems barely equipped to deal with her only son’s occasional violent outbursts. Or the show could focus on their teenage neighbor Caitlin (newcomer Jordan Kristine Seamón), a tomboy whose entry into puberty endangers her close relationship with her gruff father Richard (Kid Cudi) — not that her lonely Nigerian mother, Jenny (Faith Alabi), whose acts of kindness are seldom repaid, is any less fascinating.

Like much of Guadagnino’s recent filmography (Call Me By Your Name, A Bigger Splash, I Am Love), We Are Who We Are is concerned with the lives of (English-speaking) non-Italians in Italy. But his characters here aren’t intellectuals, artists or tycoons in postcard-ready manors and villas, but mostly working-class Americans and Italians in a half-picturesque, half-industrial town that’s grown to embrace, if not love, the base and its exotic residents. (Don’t worry: The show’s verdant, sun-drenched beaches won’t soothe your pandemic-induced wanderlust one bit.)

As it happens, Guadagnino zooms in on the adolescents, whose bond in the first half of the series (the portion sent to critics) — in concert with the lead actors’ fantastically understated performances — soon transcends mere friendship or romance. An outwardly peaceful teen whose aggressive impulses are tamped down by a steady stream of alcohol, Fraser is quickly revealed as unexpectedly emblematic of the base. Caitlin doesn’t quite understand, though she certainly intuits, that there’s little to gain in leaving behind her girlhood for womanhood, where men’s jealousy and possessiveness dictate too many women’s lives.

The series takes place during the 2016 election, with news of the Trump and Clinton campaigns constantly humming in the background. (One of the early technical triumphs is the sound design and mixing, with the show taking us inside Fraser and Caitlin’s heads — and differentiating them from one another — by allowing us to hear how different their soundscapes are, especially as we revisit the same scenes from their respective points of view. Fraser chooses to escape via aggressive pop, while bilingual Caitlin can converse more with the world around her, but prefers to tune out her mom with hip hop.) The duo’s stylishly baggy wardrobe — with costume design by Giulia Piersanti, who worked on Guadagnino’s last three features — also speak to a self-consciously chic but believable youthfulness, as well as the connection between them.

But the electoral backdrop also emphasizes the characterizations that don’t quite cohere, or at least demand greater elaboration (that, admittedly, the series may provide in the latter half of its run). Even as a seemingly lifelong soldier, Richard being revealed as a Black Trump supporter feels more geared toward shocking the audience than giving him new dimensions. Just as credibility-straining is Sevigny’s touchy-feely senior officer, who zips right past “expanding our preconceived ideas of what female soldiers are like” to Oh, Come On-ville. (At least Sarah’s characterization is redeemed by her emotional negligence of her wife Maggie, played by Alice Braga.) Slightly more believable is an orgy-adjacent party that Caitlin’s friends throw in an empty mansion that they sneak into in order to celebrate the quickie wedding of two of their own — a bacchanal that perhaps makes more sense in a European context, or on Euphoria.

An aura of pleasant aimlessness suffuses the production, its evocation of eternal summer mirroring the teens’ approach to their here-but-not-really-ness. But of course the scripts (by Guadagnino, Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri) are meticulously crafted, guided in large part by the steady unearthing of the characters’ layers. They expose how each character copes with the sense of lostness they can’t quite shake no matter where they go, not-quite-blissfully unaware of the greater losses to come.

Cast: Jack Dylan Grazer, Jordan Kristine Seamón, Chloë Sevigny, Kid Cudi, Alice Braga, Spence Moore II

Creator: Luca Guadagnino

Showrunner: Luca Guadagnino

Premieres Monday, Sep. 14, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO