“I used to be a lot of things,” Army wife Jenny (Faith Alabi) admits. “Then I stopped being a lot of things. Truth is, I don’t know who I am anymore.”
Jenny’s dilemma is one that applies to every character in We Are Who We Are, a lyrical coming-of-age drama from Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino. Set on a U.S. Army base in Italy in 2016, the limited series follows a group of interconnected teens and adults who all used to be one thing or another, and are struggling to figure out who and what they’ve become.
The core of the story is the friendship between newcomer Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer), a 14-year-old would-be fashion designer whose mother Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), a colonel, has arrived to assume command of the base, and Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), a cool kid whose lower-ranking father Richard (Kid Cudi) resents that he now has to take orders from a lesbian.
The base is an attempt to recreate local comforts in a foreign land, with mixed results. The commissary has Domino’s and KFC, but the whole place feels alien to Fraser, who whines, “Americans can only be happy in America.” “This is America,” Sarah’s wife Maggie (Alice Braga) argues, not sounding entirely convinced herself. For the characters, all lines seem as blurry as the one between Italy and America: who your parent is and how you should treat each other, whom you love and whom you only lust after, and how you define your sexuality and/or gender, among many other things. This seems natural for the kids, who are at an age where identities can still be easily tried on and discarded if they don’t fit. But We Are Who We Are doesn’t lose sight of how desperately some grown-ups wish they could do the same — and how easily they can hurt their children and partners in the process.
Like a lot of cinema veterans working in television for the first time, Guadagnino (who directs every episode, and co-writes them with Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri) seems to see his new medium as “movies, but longer.” Huge swaths of time are spent just lingering with the kids as they hang out on the beach, or party at an empty house. But few transplants from the big screen to the small have as keen an eye, or ear, as Guadagnino, so the voyeuristic nature of the storytelling feels inviting rather than indulgent. (Mostly.) The cinematography is often stunning, like a food-fight tableau that suggests a more rambunctious Last Supper. The soundtrack mixes modern pop and hip-hop with classical pieces — Blood Orange and composer John Adams are crucial sonic guideposts — in a way that adds depth and tension to even the most leisurely afternoon spent in the company of Fraser and Caitlin, while making the bigger emotional moments soar.
Grazer, who played Eddie the young hypochondriac in It, hits every complicated note about Fraser, who at times can seem incredibly wise and at others a scarred, volatile kid trying and failing to seem much more worldly than he actually is. Newcomer Seamón, meanwhile, is a real find: Caitlin has a different identity (and, at times, a different name) for every person in her life, but can be just as raw and vulnerable as Fraser, if not more. Seamón has screen presence to spare, so that the less Caitlin says out loud to friends and family, the more her eyes are showing us what’s really going on. Sevigny and Cudi are both convincingly military in their bearing, even though Sarah and Richard are otherwise so very different, while Braga and Alabi say a lot with a little about what it’s like to bend your life in service to a dominant spouse who’s only vaguely aware of your sacrifices.
The Army has a culture built on conformity. We Are Who We Are, though, is a tale of nonconformists — both those in uniform and those allergic to desert camo — in a place foreign to the concept, in more ways than one. At one point, Fraser brags that the base has several thousand tons of explosives buried underneath, “but on the surface, everything seems copacetic.” In a later episode, he and Caitlin watch fireworks together. We Are Who We Are’s more metaphorical explosions can sometimes do big damage, but at others, they’re really beautiful.
We Are Who We Are premieres September 14th on HBO. I’ve seen the first four of eight episodes.