Updated: May 9, 2022
I am a little bit late to the Luca Guadagnino craze. He’s been the fuel for many indie fans’ Italy-set, sexually promiscuous summer fantasies, and most agree that his content has been consistently provocative. Until this past week, I had only seen Call Me By Your Name from his body of work, and mostly for award-related purposes. That film is a faint remnant in my mind from the winter break when I watched 20+ Oscar films just for the pleasure of saying I’d seen them. As many wonderful things as I’ve heard about I am Love and A Bigger Splash, I regret not to have seen them and not consider them relevant to this discussion of Guadagnino’s 2020 HBO miniseries, We Are Who We Are.
At the urging of my friend and queer content specialist Jared, I took a break from my 90-minute movie routine to spend 470+ minutes with Guadagnino’s latest script inventions. I am not anti-TV by any means; if it was known just how many hours this past year I’ve spent watching my favorite jokey sitcoms, there might be serious concern expressed about my well-being. But dramatic TV shows are harder for me. It’s more time, more commitment, and more whiplash. I loathe plot devices and switch-ups; the longer a show goes on, the easier it is to falsify a character for the convenience of the storyline (I believe they call it “Flanderizing”).
But I found myself very pleased by how the characters operate in We Are Who We Are. For the most part, the teenagers talk and act like teenagers, and the adults talk and act like adults. There is a little bit of awkward overlap from time to time (which I will get into), but it’s a deliberate mechanism meant to depict the confusion of adolescence and how the lines can become blurred. The youth performances are some of the best of the decade, and the drama is mostly plausible, so long as you remind yourself that cultural differences play a key role in the communication of the military base’s constituents.
First, it might be helpful to pin down why exactly Guadagnino felt compelled to make this series: a coming-of-age tale about two American high schoolers living on a military base in Italy. He’s well-versed in themes of sexuality, hence young Fraser’s (Jack Dylan Grazer) inexplicitly defined attraction to men and the experimental queerness of some of his peers.
Guadagnino delves into matters of sex itself with the overarching arc of Caitlin/Harper’s (Jordan Kristine Seamón) gender dysphoria. Guadagnino also sets the series during the 2016 election, a choice that gives certain episodes an eerie, dystopian feeling because of its traumatic recency. The time period no doubt informs the politics, which, like it or not, play a part in the film’s representation of the U.S. military, whose Vicenza base originally offered to house the show’s filming until finding out what the show was about and withdrawing all support.
The end goal, it seems, is to tell a story about complex youth relationships, romantic and platonic, against the backdrop of external political upheaval. Guadagnino utilizes the ever-popularizing Gen Z lens of governmental nihilism alongside a pointed desire to encourage emotional liberation, which often comes with bodily liberation.
I used to have some puritanical notions about what should and should not be depicted in media, which I have since come to renounce for the sake of naturalism and combating the instances when nudity and sexuality are portrayed recklessly and unrealistically. I think Guadagnino’s sensitivity toward bodies within the series helps set the tone for Harper’s own lack of assurance about their own.
Fraser’s mom, Colonel Wilson’s (Chloë Sevigny) relationship with her body is a healthy and casual one. Her general belief as a parent seems to be that prudishness is directly related to fear, which she avoids as much as can in her high-ranking position. That concept is best demonstrated by her blunt undressing in front of Fraser prior to getting in the shower with her wife and even in front of the military personnel on the night of a crisis. Her hope for Fraser is that he observes and normalizes all walks of life, which should help him figure things out for himself. Although Fraser is, generally speaking, a cool, open-minded kid with wisdom beyond his years, his many neuroses and distaste for his mother’s occupation prevent him from being totally at peace with himself.
Harper, on the other hand, comes from a more buttoned-up, traditional upbringing. Their dad Richard (Kid Cudi), is a Trump-supporting lieutenant colonel, and their mom, Jennifer (Faith Alabi), embodies the role of a traditional housewife. The stark contrast between the two principal families is highlighted many times over during the course of the series, making for an uncomfortable Romeo x Juliet relationship between Fraser and Harper.
There is more to Jennifer than what's on the surface, though, culminating in a brief affair between her and Colonel Wilson’s wife, Maggie (Alice Braga) – the only fast-feelings relationship in the show that I’d argue is not really earned. Jennifer becoming liberated by interacting with more open-minded people makes sense, but her being in denial of her bisexuality doesn't end up meaning much for her character in the long run. She is fiercely loyal to her family, so the swiftness with which they fall into their sexual liaison is not only jarring but disingenuous.
At home, Harper’s tomboyish qualities are embraced by their father when it comes to helping out with the boat and practicing at the shooting range but rejected when it comes to cutting their hair and dressing like a man. Richard makes a remark to his wife at one point, something along the lines that “[Harper] doesn’t know what it’s like out there for people like us,” referencing, likely, their blackness and the stigma of gender non-conformity within minority communities. His fear holds Harper back from being more at ease with themself.
Throughout the eight episodes, Fraser and Harper develop an intense and profound relationship based on a mutual identity crisis. Fraser believes, from the get-go, that there is more to them than meets the eye. Maybe it’s a little weird that his knee-jerk reaction to observing them reading prose is to take a photo (with the sound on), but once he clarifies and validates his intrigue, the two become fast friends.
A common thread I picked up on in the series was the community's acute adoration of Harper, despite them not having that many distinct interests or passions. Thoroughly detached, their character is the object of many others’ projections. Three people declare their love for Harper over the course of a single solitary season, all without much mutual desire or encouragement. Harper truly doesn’t know what they want for themself, and that remains true even after the credits roll on the final episode.
That’s where the title comes in: We Are Who We Are. Cutely, or perhaps for some, insufferably on-the-nose, each individual episode title is “Right Here Right Now” I, II, III, etc. The hope is to depict these young people as honestly as possible, as they feel in the moment. Some of them have grandiose ideas about who they want to be, and they expect an immediate “becoming.” But a lot of times, the teens want things to be a certain way before they’re really ready for those things in their entirety. Reality is a modified, imperfect version of the best-laid plans and even one’s own identity. Feelings are complex and indefinite. If the show achieves one thing, it is that sentiment of unsettled, aimless ambiguity. At least a couple of times every episode, the camera lingers, the pace slackens, and the characters just sit in their incertitude.
Such is the case of Fraser’s affection for Jonathan (Tom Mercier), a 30-year-old major who works with Colonel Wilson and treads the line between older brother and love interest. When Jonathan offers to take Fraser to the countryside, Fraser subconsciously interprets the rendez-vous as a date and even labels it as such before correcting himself. Just as the two begin to drink at a bar, Jonathan’s friend Marta shows up, and Fraser readjusts the romanticized idea he had of Jonathan and him just in time to take the night in stride and have good, age-appropriate fun.
Harper's conclusion is likewise indeterminate. In the end, it is unclear whether they decide to go through with their gender transition. My use of they/them pronouns is reflective of Harper’s apparent fluidity toward the denouement of the final episode, as they seem somewhat taken aback by someone labeling them as FTM transgender (although it is never really clarified). It certainly makes them happy to find out about the options for pursuing gender confirmation hormones, but it also might be too much, too fast. It has only been a couple of months since Fraser introduced the idea of a non-binary gender spectrum to them in the first place.
To be clear, Fraser and Harper’s resolution is a romantic one, but one that feels fresh because Fraser was the one to see Harper’s fluidity in them from the very first day. At the very least, during their pact-breaking intimate encounter, Harper appears to be reciprocating the emotions of the turbulent and suddenly love-abounding Fraser.
In using actual 15 and 16-year-old actors, Guadagnino institutes a rawness to the more explicit scenes. Some may frown upon the implication of barely grown-up actors being put in such adult situations (an elongated party sequence in Episode 4 that eventually becomes a lowkey orgy comes to mind, as does 14-year-old Fraser’s inappropriate relationship with Jonathan), but those situations struck me as not too far removed from what people in this age group actually endure.
An aspect I really appreciate Guadagnino incorporating is how Fraser and Harper aren’t necessarily sex-motivated like some of their older friends. Most of the time, any borderline-sexual interaction that they end up in, it’s because of peer pressure or misunderstanding. Being so ill-equipped to understand themselves (and equally behind the cusp in puberty), it makes sense that the two of them are able to relate in a non-sexual fashion.
Unfortunately, it is the adults in their lives who misinterpret their self-questioning for sex-related curiosity, and they are both come on to by people well-older than them. Such adults are under the impression that sex is the key to their angst, whereas it’s not really that; they just need someone to listen to them.
It’s quite sad that Fraser has to be the one to duck out of a drunk Jonathan x Marta dance turned sensual, and it’s quite sad that one of the first people Harper meets who also has a shaved head attempts to kiss them instead of noting their youth and listening to their insecurities. Their innocence, however altered by living in the Internet age and experiencing over-exposure, is still partially intact, and each moment that they have to deal with something far beyond their age cuts like a knife.
Episode 7 is the most traumatic instance of shared grief; Harper’s brother’s best friend Craig dies in an explosion in Afghanistan. As a way of coping, their friend group resorts to drugs and vandalism. Everything falters and comes to an untimely end. Even though it would be nice to see Jennifer and Colonel Wilson overcome their differences, Maggie’s affair has already done too much damage.
Episode 8 makes a very wise decision by isolating Harper and Fraser for their final turn. A change in environment, a road-tripping endeavor, and a special kind of concert scene that rings only briefly of publicity for artist Blood Orange, whose music has been a recurring thread for the friends. Fraser is still an angry little person with a lot of issues to resolve, but his euphoria about the concert and his new (imaginary?) friend Luca suggests some positivity to come.
Harper undeniably gets the shorter end of the stick in terms of clarity, as they are imminently awaiting their move off of the base, but their character has never been extraordinarily well-defined in the first place. Their passivity is their reckoning force, and as much as Fraser wishes to see something bold and undefinable in them, it may, too, be a product of projection. At the very least, Harper feels safe in his midst.
We Are Who We Are is a mere piece in the puzzle of Guadagnino's life's journey to make naturalistic and soulful characters. It is often transportive, and sometimes even transformative. Its authentic performances shine bright in a flurry of unconvincing TV melodramas, and its mission, however vague, is pure. For those who struggle to see how they fit in in the world, Guadagnino might be able to offer them a guiding light, or at the very least, the consolation that no one else really knows, either.