The present style of mainstream American film resembles plastic, as even the most intimate industry films often feel inorganic by design. It is surprising, then, to behold the relative success of Luca Guadagnino—a director whose most persistent themes are the human body’s role as a reservoir for spiritual, erotic and occasionally-political pressures.
Gudagnino’s 2017 mainstream breakout, an adaptation of André Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name, achieved as much success as a languorous Italian erotic drama is able to. It garnered Timothée Chalamet an Oscar nomination for a restless performance as a young man whose body acts as a marionette for the desires it houses.
At first glance, Guadagnino’s new HBO drama, We Are Who We Are, with its Italian setting and precocious lead (Jack Dylan Grazer), resembles Call My By Your Name. Any real engagement with this story, however, reveals an almost entirely different animal from Elio and Oliver’s self-contained romance—albeit one equally fixated on the body as the nexus of personal identity and the revelations which shift it.
Set on an American military base in northern Italy during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, We Are Who We Are lacks the nostalgia exhibited in Guadagnino’s previous period pieces: Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria. Instead, the director’s eye focuses on the styles of his characters. These styles emerge from and contrast with the rigidity of the military environment.
Fraser, the series’ ostensible protagonist (and its clearest example of aesthetic outlandishness), is the son of two mothers—Maggie (Alice Braga), a military medic, and Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), a commanding officer set to take over the Chioggia military base to which they have just relocated. Fraser’s movements, alternately frustrated and balletic, comprise not only the entirety of the show’s opening scene, but most of its first episode, during which he becomes acquainted with the geography and people of Chioggia.
Traipsing through the base’s high school, Fraser encounters a compelling group of fellow teens reciting poetry. Among the group, Britney (Francesca Scorsese) and Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón) loom largest for Fraser throughout the series’ first two episodes; the former by introducing him to the group after noting his eccentricity, the latter by intriguing him with her penchant for androgyny. The first episode concerns itself with these inklings of acquaintance, constantly revisiting images of these teens crossing and recrossing borders—onto and off of bridges and bases, into and out of range of a security camera. The teens are always simultaneously beset with ease and discomfort.
If We Are Who We Are were a series exclusively concerned with Fraser and his new environment, Guadagnino’s direction would propel it to some degree of success. Instead, the second episode retells the first episode’s story from Caitlin’s perspective, shifting the narrative from a sole character study to an ensemble whose contours seem boundless. Guadagnino experiments with a temporally-parallel structure, and organically deepens the characters. Scenes are revisited, with framing shifted to emphasize the narrative of any given character. Spaces the viewer had previously been acquainted with are shown from different vantage points, and seemingly innocuous character details become imbued with purpose. This spatial intrigue clarifies this project as one unconcerned with easily delineated identities, especially when considering the fluidity embodied by Caitlin, a character who seems to simultaneously emulate both her father’s (Kid Cudi) conservative politics and masculinity.
The rigid military rituals captured by Guadagnino’s camera seem a direct counterpoint to Fraser’s childlike twirling upon first entering the austere base. The weight of this series stems from its willingness to step back and let the camera watch them either defy or lean into the gravity of the spaces they inhabit. Because of its light touch and its nimble protagonists, We Are Who We Are overcomes plastic archetypes and proves itself as a tribute to the amorphousness of developing adolescent identities.