A drama about coming-of-age in a small town in Italy by Luca Guadagnino? You may think I am talking about the 2017 critically acclaimed film “Call Me By Your Name” but I am in fact talking about the new HBO series “We Are Who We Are.” While sharing similarities, such as a director and themes of teenage self-discovery, “We Are Who We Are” distinguishes itself as its own entity, and becomes a unique portrayal of self-exploration in the process.
“We Are Who We Are” follows two American teens and families living on a fictionalized U.S. military base in Chioggia, Italy before the 2016 election. The coming of age drama focuses on the highs and lows of 21st-century teenage life and the exploration of sexuality and identity that comes along with it.
Directed and co-written by Guadagnino, with Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri, the series is his first trek into the world of television. The miniseries premiered its first episode on HBO on Sep. 14 and was shown in its entirety at San Sebastián International Film Festival on Sept. 20.
The series is shot spectacularly by cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel, who captures the essence of the picturesque Italian town and the authoritarian army base where the series takes place. He perfectly encapsulates the hazy days on the beach and the chaotic nights of mischief. The camerawork gives the audience the sense of wanderlust that comes from unforgettable adventures with friends and beautiful Italian landscapes. Wenzel creates a stunning picture of the world surrounding the teens, even in the confines of the army base.
Luca Guadagnino takes full advantage of the long-form style of a miniseries, drawing out character development over multiple episodes. He does not have to make the audience immediately understand who they are or what their relationships are to each other. He does not force too much backstory into the first two episodes; instead, he seemingly drops the audience into the world and leaves them to discover that world just as the characters do.
The series is wonderfully paced too, as it never rushes ahead or moves too slowly. The limited backstory that is provided alongside the natural pacing provides a well-calculated balance that keeps viewers hooked and wanting to find out more.
The way the series deals with its teenage characters is what separates this show from the many others with similar themes, such as HBO’s “Euphoria”. Unlike other teen dramas, the show allows its teenagers to simply exist and interact with the world as they see fit. It does not put any implicit judgment on their acts, whether it be drinking copious amounts of alcohol or lashing out against adults.
The show allows the characters to be as quick-tempered and spontaneous as they tend to be in real life, making it hard to catch up with them at times. They do not make the characters pander and slow down to allow the audience to understand why they do what they do. They do not put any expectations on them and allow them to fully inhabit the world that is created for them, making it an earnest portrayal of teenage life.
Guadagnino allowed this world, as flawed as it is, to seem like a different one from our own, almost outside of our timeline entirely. Guadagnino builds his world around the fictional army base and the picturesque Italian landscape, making the viewer feel at ease only to quickly bring in the outside world to interrogate how our reality plays into theirs.
“We Are Who We Are” has a stunning ensemble of accomplished performers and newcomers alike. The cast features the likes of Chloë Sevigny, Scott ‘Kid Cudi’ Mescudi and Alice Braga. While the adult cast is fantastic, it is the actors portraying the group of teens who have performances that deserve the most praise. They give impassioned performances that feel so natural it is as if the audience is watching average teenagers who could be from anywhere in the world. Their powerful character work and well-developed group dynamic makes all of them the highlight of the series.
The two performances that are obvious breakouts are those of Jack Dylan Grazer as Fraser and Jordan Kristine Seamón as Caitlin. The entire acting ensemble is cohesive and noteworthy, it is Grazer and Seamón who elevate the series and make the audience stay tuned for the next episode. Grazer recently gained prominence with his portrayal of Eddie Kaspbrak in “It” and Freddy Freeman in “Shazam!,” while Seamón is a newcomer to the small screen.
The subtle performances Fraser and Caitlin give have a striking depth to them, and glimpses of how they interact with the adults around them make for a gripping quality to the inner workings of these characters. Both actors display electric energy with each other and make these two lead characters come to life brilliantly. Grazer and Seamon prove that while they are still teenagers themselves, they have talent beyond their years and will be names to look out for in the next few years.
“We Are Who We Are” is a show that stands out amongst the many others which attempt to portray teenage life. Guadagnino proves that his directorial style and storytelling abilities have more time to breathe in this new long-form medium and it makes for, in just two episodes, a story that has already established itself as one of the Fall’s most promising and must-see series.
“We Are Who We Are” airs new episodes Mondays at 10 p.m. EST on HBO.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, e-print edition. Email Kaylee DeFreitas at [email protected]