There’s something confusing that happens when watching television shows or movies about today’s youths, especially when the aim is to capture their lives with as much authenticity as Call Me by Your Name director Luca Guadagnino attempts in his new HBO series We Are Who We Are.
You feel for them. Of course you do. Coming of age is a journey none of us weathered lightly, still nursing our emotional scars. But, increasingly, you’re terrified of them. Or are you terrified for them?
It’s a tension that We Are Who We Are, like HBO’s other recent “Can you believe how teens are these days?” series Euphoria, acknowledges, but doesn’t attempt to answer. Instead, the debauchery and the depravity, a feral recklessness as interpreted by this new generation, unfolds and sits there uncomfortably. What you’re left with is how much you so viscerally understand, and how much you can’t relate to at all.
On a surface level, much of We Are Who We Are is fairly unrelatable.
It begins with 14-year-old Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) and his mothers, Sarah (Chloe Sevigny) and Maggie (Alice Braga), arriving at an army base outside a quiet, quaint, and seductively lush Italian country town. Sarah’s taking over command duties, leaving her enigmatic son to find his place among a litter of other Army brats in a foreign, though more pleasantly freewheeling country. Whatever difficulties Fraser has, he can medicate with a bottle of vino rosso.
Before he even starts talking, you get the sense that Fraser is an outcast. His hair is bleached and unkempt, like a stained mop. His fingernails are painted yellow and black. He’s wearing an orange hoodie over leopard-print wide-leg shorts that fall past his shin, and his Apple earbuds are in and blasting, as if to shield him from reality.
We follow him as he runs amok on the base, disappearing into his head and gleaning only bits and pieces of dialogue over the music playing in his headphones, the camera often taking his own perspective as he explores.
There are clues to his developing sexual identity almost immediately, when he stumbles into the pool locker room and is transfixed at the naked men showering and changing. And there are clues to the non-traditional relationship he has with his mother and behavioral issues that underlie it. I’m still unsure I understand why, after he suddenly slaps her across the face and calls her a moron, she cradles and starts hugging him. Maybe the mystification is the point?
Everyone knows who Fraser is, because he’s the new kid, because he’s the new kid from New York, because he’s the new kid from New York whose mom is the commander, and because he’s the new kid from New York whose mom is the commander and also a lesbian. It’s a lot of qualifiers, descriptors, and attention for a person who, it becomes clear, isn’t yet fully able to describe himself.
Episode 2 takes all those half-conversations briefly overheard in the periphery and the characters who seemed to be lurking in the background during Fraser’s scenes and recenters the narrative on them, through the eyes of tomboy Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón). Caitlin and Fraser become fast, intimate friends, a partnership that baffles the rest of their classmates and seems to only make sense to themselves. They’re two people not entirely sure of who they are or who they want to be, taking solace in each other’s confusion.
The series is constantly bouncing between perspectives and focus, pursuing other classmates and Caitlin and Fraser’s families for brief yarns before darting over to another character and fleeting adventure. This haphazardness culminates in a fourth episode that takes place during an after-party for an impromptu wedding thrown when one of the older boys in the friend group learns his deployment has been fast-tracked.
The party is as mesmerizing as it is unsettling, a lilting ballet of recklessness as these kids drink, wrestle, dance, destroy a house, do drugs, kiss, strip naked, fuck, gossip, and, it seems, just do their damnedest to occupy their time. If there’s one thing that We Are Who We Are seems to be exploring more broadly, it’s that: The trouble and the epiphanies teens discover while trying to simply fill their days.
It’s a fascinating conundrum, and, in some ways, We Are Who We Are’s most impressive triumph. How do you capture the lives of teenagers finding ways to waste time, yet also make television that is gripping? Something that hooks without a hook?
That Guadagnino is able to capture the specific listlessness of that period of life—a certain bored wanderlust—speaks to his acute emotional intelligence. He is able to viscerally transport his audience to the feeling of a particular part of our own lives, as he most powerfully proved with Elio’s aching, tortured longing in Call Me by Your Name.
“He is able to viscerally transport his audience to the feeling of a particular part of our own lives, as he most powerfully proved with Elio’s aching, tortured longing in ‘Call Me by Your Name.’”
That the teens in We Are Who We Are have a seemingly inexplicable taste for ’80s music and aren’t as hooked to their phones as kids today helps things stay relatable, as if the series is not set in a particular time period, but all of our collective adolescences.
The actual setting is the dawn of the 2016 election, which sporadically factors into the narratives in ways that appear to be consequential before fizzling completely. A certain “wokeness” when it comes to sexuality and gender dates the narrative to the recent present through cultural attitudes more so than anything else in the show.
Still, I watched the four episodes provided to critics waiting with hot anticipation for the “thing” to click into place, the thing that bottles all of these vibes, diversions, and spontaneous forays into ensemble characters’ lives that circles and swirls so vibrantly—yet so chaotically—in this series, as if waiting to be harnessed. But it never happens. Whatever elixir you’re expecting Guadagnino to eventually package, at least in these first four hours, remains just spilled out over the screen, puddling as it will.
It’s not accidental that this boundless exploration, both in terms of Guadagnino’s narrative structure and the ways in which characters grapple with sexuality, gender, friendship, and family, takes place in contrast to the conformity that gives the action its backdrop: an Army base.
Ideas of aimlessness, isolation, and expectations are in constant battle. While these first four episodes center on the teen characters, you’re given enough of a glimpse at the lives of the adults in the room who all feel as if they don’t belong in their own ways to want to follow them as well. (Thanks to a mix of nuanced performances from Sevigny, Braga, Faith Alabi and Scott Mescudi, aka Kid Cudi, and underwritten character moments, you are almost desperate to dive deeper into their arcs.)
We Are Who We Are sits comfortably in Guadagnino’s oeuvre tracking the interactions and experiences of non-Italians in Italy. Dialing the clock back even further to the inner workings of 14-year-olds here from the 17-year-old preoccupations of Call Me by Your Name’s Elio makes this an interesting companion piece to the Oscar-nominated film.
But unlike CMBYN, in which the pheromones were as palpable as the sweat in each hormone- and sun-soaked shot—as sumptuous and horny as cinema gets—here things are dusty and cumbersome. The people are working class, the town less idyllic, and the vibe less lavish and more anxious. No one knows quite how to articulate how they feel. We expect viewers seeking out We Are Who We Are will encounter the same struggle when it comes to the show.