Even if it’s a coincidence that this coming-of-age drama shares its name with a Kesha banger, the association feels fitting. Like ‘We R Who We R’, the first TV series from brilliant Italian director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, Suspiria) is essentially a celebration of outsiderdom. Set in 2016, it follows a clique of American teens growing up on a US military base in Chioggia near Venice. Though the walled-off community they live in looks and feels like a small American town, once they step outside they’re separated from the Italian locals by culture, language and, sometimes, outright hostility.
Above all, Guadagnino and co-writers Paolo Giordano, Francesca Manieri and Sean Conway are interested in the friendship group’s two least conformist members, Fraser and Caitlin. In episode one we see 14-year-old Fraser (It‘s Jack Dylan Grazer) arrive in Italy with his two mums: self-possessed Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), a Colonel who’s been sent to run the base; and her more empathetic partner Maggie (Alice Braga). Fraser’s relationship with biological mother Sarah is deeply strange; he’s dependent yet resentful, and unfettered by normal parental boundaries. When he becomes anxious, she placates him with wine. When she frustrates him, he slaps her clean across the face.
Socially awkward and fashion-conscious – a combination which makes him stick out immediately – Fraser watches the clique intently until he’s welcomed in by inquisitive Britney (Francesca Scorsese, daughter of Martin, who’s impressive in her first major role). Britney compliments Fraser’s dress sense a little condescendingly, but he’s more drawn to Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), the coolly self-confident daughter of American lieutenant Richard (Scott Mescudi a.k.a. rapper Kid Cudi) and his Nigerian wife Jenny (Faith Alabi). Episode two shows the same day’s events from Caitlin’s perspective: initially she’s perplexed and repelled by the attention Fraser gives her, but when he sends her two items of male clothing, she realises he gets her and the ice is broken.
Other group members, including Caitlin’s tough, older brother Danny (Spence Moore II) presume they’re an item, but Guadagnino lets us know their relationship is more complex and platonic: at one point, Fraser makes Caitlin promise they’ll never kiss one another. Fraser seems to be queer and Caitlin is tentatively experimenting with her gender identity – she has an alter ago called Harper who almost passes for male – but nothing is ever spelled out. This is a show that eschews labels, plainspoken emotions and anything approaching an easy answer. We’re not supposed to know who these characters are because they themselves don’t know yet. In a way, We Are Who We Are is a dazzling opera of adolescent confusion.
Though the utilitarian base isn’t as idyllic as Call Me By Your Name‘s fancy Italian villa, there are aesthetic similarities between the two projects. Guadagnino’s depiction of teenage life is sensual, intense and poetic: a scene in which a paintball game descends into a kaleidoscopic slow-motion fight is as self-consciously cinematic as anything you’ll see on a streaming platform this year. Frequently, he plays with the audio track to make gossipy and toxic background conversations sound louder, adding to the show’s creeping sense of claustrophobia. Pop star Blood Orange – who cameos in episode five – supplies a beautifully woozy score that complements Guadagnino’s balmy ambiguity.
At times, We Are Who We Are can feel frustrating and a little unfocused, but in a way, this only makes it truer to teenage life. Anchored by compelling performances from Grazer, Seamón and Sevigny, who adds gravitas even when her character is peripheral, this is a fascinating and confounding watch.
‘We Are Who We Are’ is out on HBO.