We Are Who We Are, an eight-part mini-series, is the latest project from Luca Guadagnino. Guadagnino made quite a splash a few years ago with Call Me by Your Name but, sadly,followed it up with the abysmal Suspiria remake. This is a serious return to form, however, and while it is thematically linked with Call Me by Your Name, it is more contemporary than that period piece, which was set in 1983. This is set at a American military base in Italy against the backdrop of the looming 2016 election.
The first two episodes are the same story in a sense, but told through the differing perspectives of the two young protagonists. Jack Dylan Grazer, who audiences will recognise from Stephen King’s It and Shazam!, plays Frazer Wilson, who has just arrived at the base. He is being raised by his lesbian parents: Chloë Sevigny plays Sarah, who is the base’s new corporal and the parent who is strictest where Frazer is concerned, her wife Maggie (Alice Braga) is also amilitary career women. Frazer is probably gay, but he is still figuring that out. The other protagonist is Jordan Kristine Seamón as Caitlin, a Black teenager girl who is struggling with her gender identity. Her father is a big Trump supporter—he even gets that official MAGA hat shipped out—but the military forbids their officers to wear any political clothing outside their own homes. Frazer and Caitlin soon becomes friends, having met at that point in puberty where a friendship of this kind can have a seismic effect on young lives.
It’s a very easygoing watch (I watched all eight episodes in a day), even if it’s very much what they call on the street “a slow burn.” The show isn’t particularly concerned with plot or some grand outcome, it’s just a portrayal of these two teenagers’ lives and all the messiness and angst that comes with that. Frazer is a completely insufferable loner (he even has a embarrassing bumfluff moustache!) but despite to some extent struggling to get on with Caitlin’s friends, they seem to connect in a way that he hasn’t with others. Caitlin is very naive due to their conservative military brat upbringing, Frazer is the first to explain to her what a transgender person is, for instance. He demands alcohol from his mom (you can drink from age 14 in Italy), and slaps her in one of the show’s most shocking scenes. It’s obvious that Glazer is channelling Timothée Chalamet, who was the star of Call Me By Your Name but is too old for this role, they even kind of look the same. You can just imagine Guadagnino’s direction was “do it more like Chalamet would!”
The fact that by the end of the show you care about Frazer, despite how unlikable he is at the beginning, is impressive. However, you do feel more for Caitlin from the get-go, partly because you know that despite all his teen angst bullshit, things will probably work out for Frazer, whereas in Caitlin’s case that’s not as clear-cut. The fact that Guadagnino cast real teenagers gives it a sense of authenticity that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
The show received inevitable comparisons to another HBO-financed show, Euphoria, which also is about teenagers and young love, sex, drugs and gender identity. That series is better, flashier and much edgier, but if you want to feel really old and out of touch with the kids of today, both shows are for you! The depiction of the teens here is far less destructive than Euphoric, even if there are some memorable sequences where they party at and trash a rich Russian’s villa that they’ve broken into. If you are some misguided idiot who thought Call Me By Your Name was some paedophilic fantasy, you should probably stay well clear of this.
The show is scored with a very diverse mixture of music, from ’80s new wave to the latest contemporary pop, and mixes and matches styles of music in the same way the kids mix and match their identities. The choice of music is mainly from people who had ambiguous sexualities/gender identities, from David Bowie and Klaus Nomi to more contemporary R&B acts like Blood Orange (the show climaxes at a concert of his), Frank Ocean and “The Love We Make” by Prince arerecurring cues throughout the series.
All told, it’s one of the more interesting shows or films that deals with life in Trump’s America, even if it’s set for the most part before he gets elected. The setting is a strange little bit of America in Chioggia, Italy with its little movie theatre, American supermarket and fast-food joints.
2020 has been a terrible year for cinema, with We Are Who We Are, The Queen’s Gambit, The Good Lord Bird, I Am Not OK With This, I Know This Much is True and other series filling that void of great films (of which there were still a handful, though). I have always maintained that films are better than television, but with this year nearly over, it’s at least a tie. There is a possibility of another season of We Are Who We Are, but I would be just as happy for it to end on the note it does.