We Are Who We Are (HBO)
Written by Paolo Giordano, Francesca Manieri, and Luca Guadagnino
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Filmmaker Luca Guadagnino has a talent for making small, everyday moments bubble over with emotion and energy. In his mini-series, We Are Who We Are, the daily travails of American teenagers living on a military base in Italy will be going along as expected, and then the right music cue and change in camera speed elevate the outing into something mythic, poetic, beautiful. Just as he’s done in I Am Love and Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino is once again exploring ideas of love and of being an uncomfortable outsider in a new place. The result is the best television program of 2020, a work of art that reminds us why HBO is a powerhouse for quality television that allows artists to manifest their vision.
Set in 2016, We Are Who We Are is primarily about two teenagers, Frasier (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), who become awkward friends and share in coming of age discovering their sexualities in this foreign land. Frasier is the son of the new base commander, Sarah Wilson (Chloe Sevigny), whose arrival stirs up trouble. Caitlin is the daughter of Lt. Colonel Richard Poythress (Scott Mescudi aka Kid Cudi), who feels he was next in line for the base command position and holds a deep grudge against Wilson. Frasier has difficulty finding where he fits on the base, being very flamboyant in his fashion sense and very much experimental with his sexuality. This is where he and Caitlin bond as she finds herself most comfortable identifying as Harper, a masculine-presenting person. Her strict Trump-loving father has no tolerance for anything outside of his own norms, and so Harper hides the truth about themself.
There’s a rich cast of supporting characters whose plots intertwine with Frasier and Caitlin/Harper throughout the eight chapters. The teens are part of a friend group that includes Danny (Caitlin/Harper’s older brother), Britney, Sam, and Craig, along with some Italian kids they have befriended. Maggie (Alice Braga) is Frasier’s other mom and befriends Richard’s wife Jenny, a Nigerian immigrant who has forced herself to adopt all American and traditional things to keep her husband happy. Frasier strikes up a flirtatious relationship with Jonathan, a major working closely with Sarah. While this sounds complex, Guadgnino and his co-writers have woven together an organic story that gives us all the closure we could want with each person’s arc without being on the nose or explicit.
As always, Guadagnino uses his camera to its fullest, letting the viewer go everywhere, floating above the heads of his characters, diving into the pool with them, being in the moment as they glance into the mirror trying to discern who it is they see in there. The camera, much like the characters, is often intuitive, knowing who to follow and focus on, when to stay back, and give room to their emotions. This, paired with Guadagnino’s masterful choices in music cues, leads to exhilarating moments of joy and poignant scenes of failure, loneliness, and rejection.
I absolutely love that the series is smart enough not to present any villains. Every character has just as many likable traits as they do unlikeable ones. While Frasier is one of the main characters we follow, he is a petulant, hormonal teenager who has some especially deep-seated issues with Sarah, becoming physically violent with her at moments. He’s distant from Maggie, and her role in the family is a profoundly complicated one. Frasier can be an absolutely sweet and fierce defender of Harper but can blow them off when a cute boy catches his eye. Every character is just like this, having their moment of nobility and times where they miss the mark so profoundly.
Guadagnino does such an excellent job telling stories about youth on the cusp of adulthood. He understands with a rich empathy the joy of being young, running around with your friends, ignoring rules, and living as if there’s nothing to worry about in the world. Yet, he also knows when to bring them down to earth, to hit their lives with real tragedy experienced by young kids who live their lives as military brats. When it happens, it’s devastating, and the director uses a deft hand to let us sit in the solemnity of the moment. I simply can’t gush enough about this mini-series. It’s genuinely a must-watch of 2020, a year bereft of great films where one of the best is split into 8 episodes on HBO.