Teenagers are fertile ground for artists. Perhaps this is because there are few other periods in life where human emotions are so fated for pure chaos. It’s a kind of bedlam that filmmakers often try to capture, and Luca Guadagnino, most recently with Call Me by Your Name, is uniquely good at it.
The director’s new eight-episode HBO series, We Are Who We Are, is yet another study in the tumult of teenhood. The scene is Chioggia, Italy, on a U.S. military base in 2016 (Trump and Clinton ads play in the background, but mostly they’re ignored by the characters and the audience).
Rather, we’re here to observe, through Guadagnino’s curious, gracious lens, a group of adolescents. They’re mostly military brats (some American and others third culture), as well as some young soldiers and locals. The leads are 14-year-old Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) a spoiled, antisocial New York transplant whose mom Sarah (hot, butch Chloë Sevigny) has been appointed the new base commander, moving her supportive wife and reluctant son to the U.S. base. Fraser soon becomes interested, almost obsessively, with his neighbor, Caitlin, played by impressive newcomer Jordan Kristine Seamón. The two of them bond. They’re both quiet, and while Caitlin is popular and established, she’s bored. Fraser’s strangeness — his Skittles manicure, monologues about fast fashion, and Ocean Vuong books — intrigues her. Both are exploring their queer identities, a not-so-secret secret they share from the get-go.
Fraser is the most compelling and disturbing character to watch. Think of him like the dark inversion of Guadagnino’s previous subject, Timothée Chalamet as Elio in Call Me by Your Name (they even look similar). But where Elio had a playful, Labrador energy, Fraser is frenetic and violent in a way that goes beyond bad teenage behavior and suggests something more serious. This comes out the most in the scenes with Sarah: He slaps her over a minor annoyance, calls her a witch, and threatens to kill her. Other times there’s an almost sensual dynamic between them, like when she cuts her finger and he immediately puts it in his mouth. The relationship is both enthralling and confusing: What are we supposed to make of this, and of him?
Caitlin is even more inscrutable, brimming with a contained tension. While you can read Fraser’s angst right there on his face, Caitlin’s is deep down, hidden beneath a mask of ambivalence. Instead, it comes out in unexpected acts of defiance: Disguising herself as a boy to visit the local bars, trashing her dad’s boat, shaving off all her hair.
They’re not the only characters that are difficult to pin down, which is one reason why We Are Who We Are captures the energy of adolescence so effectively. Everyone in this show, even the adults, are bent on pressure-testing the world around them with an impulsiveness that borders on rashness: Sarah ignores her wife, Maggie, to flirt with a young soldier (whom she seems to know her son has eyes for, further substantiating their Oedipal dynamic). Maggie (Alice Braga) seems to court Caitlin’s mom, a conventional homemaker who feels trapped in her marriage. Meanwhile, Caitlin’s dad (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi) buys MAGA hats that are banned on base.
Perhaps the most impulsive decision comes from a young soldier (Corey Knight) on the brink of deployment. It leads the show’s best episode, a delirious dream sequence of a day that begins with a paintball bacchanale and ends with a real one. It’s masterfully done, and is the point at which the show’s lush, poetic aesthetics, whimsical soundtrack, and sexual intimations converge into a feast of high art and horniness. All the while, Guadagnino follows his characters with a spry intimacy that is at odds with the plot, which is so languid it often feels rudderless. But then again, how better to capture the feeling of growing up?