“So, what should I call you?”
It’s a question posed by one of two lead characters to the other in Luca Guadagnino’s new HBO show, We Are Who We Are. And it’s a set of words that instantly evokes, at least in my mind, the title phrase of the director’s 2017 film, Call Me By Your Name. The context between the two pairs of leads, however, differs greatly. You won’t be left in tears by the HBO series (at least, not in the first half of the season that was screened for critics) like you may have been during the love story between Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet’s characters. Rather, Guadagnino’s first stab at drawing something out beyond feature-length carries lower emotional stakes than expected. It’s less of a gut punch and something that feels more akin to an experiment. And since we’re talking about Guadagnino, he knows we’re expecting an immersive experience.
Granted, there are multiple surface similarities between the two projects at work. A sun-drenched, often-picturesque Italian setting for one thing; the idea of non-Italians living temporarily in Italy; an exploration of the adolescent experience; two leads who recognize something crucial in one another and forge an unshakable bond. In this case, we’re talking about Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer of Shazam! and Andy Muschietti’s It movies) and Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón, a newcomer with presence), two U.S. Army brats whose lives are at once well-traveled but insulated, and isolated… together. Guadagnino enjoys playing with such contradictions. Sure, he’s lending his audience some beautiful landscapes, too, but really, he’s exploring America from afar. Since this a U.S. military base, we overhear an aside: “This is America.”
Yup, the base actually functions as a microcosm of American society. Fraser’s the newcomer by way of NYC with his two moms, Sarah (Chloe Sevigny) and Maggie (Alice Braga). Sarah’s picking up colonel duties, and she doesn’t have the finest-tuned motherly instincts. Whereas Fraser’s an occasional loose cannon, full of angst and sometimes slightly insufferable, yet understated during most moments. He meets Caitlin, whose mysterious aura churns out more questions than answers for a few episodes, after which it becomes apparent that these two will be significant players in each other’s lives, however fleeting their time together on the base might end up being.
What results is an ephemeral and rootless take on adolescence. The viewer can soak in dreamy sights and get carried away by the pair’s respective escapes into their headphones. Sounds of waves crashing and Guadagnino’s meandering approach to following his characters around is, you know, rather comforting right now. The not-much-happening-all-at-once vibe could never feel as cool as Tarantino made it feel in his last film, but the show takes an inventive approach to structuring episodes. Two installments essentially follow the same events from different perspectives, and one entire episode follows a debaucherous all-night party that would feel right at home on Euphoria. It must also be noted that this goes down with a more literally euphoric feel and less nihilism than the Zendaya-starring series.
We Are Who We Are also grapples with issues, including gender identity. Yet it never takes a heavy-handed approach to a coming-of-age story, preferring instead to casually sway between feeling at once youthful and far beyond its years. Time languidly unfurls, stretching out over lazy summer days that seemingly go nowhere while these teens, unavoidably, are hurtling toward adulthood. The unknown future looms, and they’re simply biding their time without fully grasping that change (and real responsibility) lies ahead for all of them. (I’m not sure how Francesca Scorsese’s gregarious character — being carried to sea, above, and she is a hoot — will possibly handle adult life, but it sure as hell won’t be a dull affair.)
I don’t want to overemphasize this next detail, though it feels necessary to mention: these events take place against the backdrop of the 2016 election. There’s not a lot of emphasis there over four episodes, although I gotta say that it was jarring to see Kid Cudi’s role, as Caitlin’s father, including a MAGA hat. Yet that scene mostly acts to reinforce that the military generally operates in support of the conservative powers that be, which (unsurprisingly) do not necessarily reflect the behavior of all who reside there.
Ultimately, We Are Who We Are gives its audience an escape with a reassuring sense of structure — on a military base with surrounding picturesque sights and sounds — and it’s Luca Guadagnino’s gift to viewers, ultimately reassuring and meditative, like a beachy blanket to spend some hours before returning to the “real” America. The director also is at one with his audience here. He realizes that if we’re into his work, we probably dig a little bit of pretension, but not too much. We probably wouldn’t mind a weird food metaphor tossed in for good measure, either. This show brings a sense of dark humor at times, although, nope, no peaches (and I don’t have to stress over Elio’s bedroom probably attracting ants as a result).
No ants. That scores points from me, but I also enjoyed the vibes of this show. It doesn’t go anywhere, really, only stays right where it is, but still, it’s quite a trip to get there.
HBO’s ‘We Are Who We Are’ debuts on Monday, September 14 at 10:00pm EST.