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The Luca Guadagnino Guide to Coming of Age in Italy

Here’s some lessons on growing up, learned from observing the characters in ‘We Are Who We Are’ and ‘Call Me by Your Name’

Sony Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Confession time: I’ve always been a sucker for films and TV shows that, even if they aren’t necessarily good, work extremely well as travel porn. Maybe Fool’s Gold and Into the Blue have cringey dialogue and even cringier acting, but I’ll always have a soft spot for these movies because they’re just so pleasing to look at. If the AMC miniseries The Night Manager wasn’t an espionage thriller and simply focused on Tom Hiddleston managing fancy hotels (at night, obviously), I would probably hold it in even higher esteem. I’m convinced the most important takeaway from The Talented Mr. Ripley has nothing to do with Matt Damon’s sociopathic scammer, but rather how awesome it would be to travel around Italy with Jude Law. Remove the whole “rural cult performing horrific rituals for pagan worship” setup, and Midsommar is low-key Sweden vacation goals. (OK, I might have a harder time selling you on that one, since most of Midsommar is kind of focused on the murder-cult thing.)

The point is: It’s enjoyable to watch something that doubles as vacation wish fulfillment, and few filmmakers understand and capture that feeling of wanderlust better than Luca Guadagnino. The auteur has made a career out of directing films that are, yes, quite good, but also (mostly) highlight the beauty and splendor of his native Italy. Guadagnino’s so good at creating this sort of vibe, it should come as little surprise that he was hired to create a short film for a luxury hotel chain. The result is, well, rather luxurious.

It’s easy to fall in love with Guadagnino’s work for its idyllic backdrops, so it’s only fitting that many of his movies deal intimately with feelings of love, desire, and journeys of self-discovery—none of which were more memorable than the 2017 coming-of-age drama Call Me by Your Name. Well, the best possible endorsement I can give for Guadagnino’s new HBO series We Are Who We Are is that it feels extremely Call Me by Your Name-esque.

Unsurprisingly, then, We Are Who We Are is a coming-of-age tale focused on angsty, adolescent transplants on an American military base in Italy struggling to figure out who they are, who they love, and what they want. (The kids’ parents are also going through their own crises and get some time in the spotlight; more on that later.) Between these two picturesque projects, Guadagnino has provided us with a handy, albeit niche, template. From spontaneous dance moves to [redacted] peaches, let’s break down the Luca Guadagnino guide to coming of age in (and traveling through) Italy.

Screw Conformity

While set in Italy, the fact that We Are Who We Are is centered on an American military base underscores a running question of the series: What happens when conformity is expected but you don’t fit in? The show’s two teenage leads—Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamon)—resist easy labels, as do the rest of the characters, both young and old, in the ensemble. (One of Fraser’s mothers, played by Chloe Sevigny, is the new commander of the base, and it’s intimated that some of her subordinates aren’t comfortable having a queer leader.)

Adolescence is a point in someone’s life that’s all about experimentation, where some parts of sexuality and identity can be felt out, while other feelings are repressed—perhaps even more so on a military base. (Remember how long it took for Elio and Oliver to open up to one another in Call Me by Your Name?) That Guadagnino, who also cowrote We Are Who We Are, chose to set the series’ events on the eve of the 2016 presidential election is definitely not a coincidence—nor is the early appearance of a MAGA hat on Caitlin’s father, played by Kid Cudi (!!).

Dance Like the Person You’re Crushing on Is Watching

Dancing: Either it comes naturally, or you don’t have the courage to publicly embarrass yourself until the liquor is flowing and/or you’re trying to get some hot person’s attention. Take it from Elio, who goes from “Eh, I’ll pass” to “Please notice me, Armie Hammer” in a matter of minutes:

Guadagnino just can’t resist a good dance sequence. In the fourth episode of We Are Who We Are, Fraser, Caitlin, and Co. break into someone’s house while they’re out of town and have a much better time executing their moves than the poor dancers in the director’s 2018 remake of Suspiria. Basically, dancing is cool when you’re young and hoping to impress someone in Italy; it’s a little more hazardous at a prestigious German dance academy secretly run by a coven of witches. (Just a helpful thing to avoid!)

Play Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End???

Back to the aforementioned We Are Who We Are break-in house party: In addition to plenty of booze and IRL debauchery, the kids intermittently mess around with, of all things, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The video game’s inclusion is in no way integral to the plot, it’s just hanging out aimlessly in the background, but I just can’t stop thinking about it. A randomly specific piece of pop culture hasn’t been this beguiling since Fifty Shades Darker revealed that Christian Grey has a Chronicles of Riddick poster in his childhood bedroom. (Christian has impeccable taste.)

The lesson, I guess, is to drop by your local Italian GameStop so that you can finish playing the epic saga of legendary treasure hunter Nathan Drake when you’re not making out with someone.

Be Prone to Melodrama

For a teenager, that oughta be easy.

Bring the Bike

Guadagnino has described himself as a voyeuristic filmmaker, and some of Call Me by Your Name’s best moments simply linger on Elio and Oliver as they traverse the Italian countryside on their bikes. There’s something about these beautiful landscapes and architectural details that’s just begging to be explored via pedals. Is this not how you would want to spend your summer (if we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic)?

With We Are Who We Are being a television series, there’s even more space for Guadagnino to employ and embrace those voyeuristic impulses. It honestly feels like half the fun of the show is seeing the characters transport themselves from one place to another—sometimes, yes, on a bike. To turn this into the Blogger Therapy Corner for a second: Now I wish I biked more in high school.

(Completely irrelevant side note: My teenage bike game wasn’t strong, but I did help build a dune buggy for a high school senior project, which me and my friends somehow didn’t flunk despite the fact that—this is true—we forgot to install the brakes. After the presentation I almost drove into a van, which may well be my closest near-death experience. Anyway, bike > dune buggy, but however you get around, please make sure to install brakes!)

Check in on Your Parents

There’s a certain level of self-centeredness every teenager is guilty of, which sometimes means being blissfully unaware of what’s going on with their parents. To watch Call Me by Your Name is to slowly understand that Elio’s parents are quietly fully aware of the budding romance between their son and Oliver, and to see the subtle steps they take to encourage the two lovers to make the most of their time together. But the only time any of that really crosses Elio’s mind is when his father (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) delivers a heart-wrenching monologue near the end of the film. You know, the one that made you cry in the theater.

While the feelings and desires of Elio’s parents mostly go unexpressed in Guadagnino’s movie, We Are Who We Are does a commendable job of fleshing out the adults on the American military base—many of whom would yearn to be at an age when they could make fundamental changes to their lives—as much as the teens. “I used to be a lot of things,” Caitlin’s mother, Jenny, says. “Truth is, I don’t know who I am anymore.” (Damn.) In short: Don’t forget that parents are people, too!

And Finally: Stock Up on Peaches

What you end up doing with them is [clears throat] optional.