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You Haven’t Seen a Teen Show Quite Like ‘We Are Who We Are’

Luca Guadagnino’s HBO series is the auteur’s spin on the TV coming-of-age tale

HBO/Ringer illustration

You’ll probably think you know what you’re getting with We Are Who We Are. The director of Call Me by Your Name comes to TV with another tale of an American teenager coming of age in Italy? Luca Guadagnino must be cashing in, building on his unlikely momentum as a European art house auteur turned stateside awards darling with an extended version of his most recognizable hit. Worse, more cynical, and less achingly beautiful things have happened. But that’s not the case with We Are Who We Are.

Sure, there are parallels between the show and Call Me by Your Name—enough that fans of the latter will be satisfied and stick around. Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer of It) is a sensitive, repressed teen from the States, dragged across the Atlantic by his parents’ profession—in this case, his mother Sarah’s (Chloë Sevigny) new gig commanding a military base just outside Venice. There, he meets a kindred spirit who prompts him to explore his sexuality—in this case, not a love interest but a new friend and fellow army brat named Cait (Jordan Kristine Seamón). Together, the two of them hang out, consume substances, and dance at outdoor discotheques—in this case, Frank Ocean and the Rolling Stones swap in for Sufjan Stevens and the Psychedelic Furs.

But Guadagnino isn’t just the director of Call Me by Your Name, a straightforward bildungsroman adapted from André Aciman’s novel. He’s also the mastermind behind 2018’s supersized, sometimes lurid remake of Suspiria as well as A Bigger Splash, a much darker and more cynical take on what happens when ugly Americans escape to the Mediterranean. We Are Who We Are retains Guadagnino’s lyrical, sun-bleached aesthetic, but it also restores his voice as a writer. (Guadagnino cocreated the show with Paolo Giordano, Francesca Manieri, and Ray Donovan alum Sean Conway; he also directs every episode and shares a credit on every script with Giordano and Manieri.) We Are Who We Are turns out to be something of a Trojan horse, as it’s both stranger and less story-driven than Call Me by Your Name. Guadagnino makes the rare transition to a TV gig that’s more challenging than the film work that got the series order, though it’s not quite without precedent.

Airing as it does on HBO, where it premieres this Monday, We Are Who We Are is partly a follow-up to Euphoria, the channel’s initial foray into teen-centric programming. We Are Who We Are isn’t trying to provoke the way Sam Levinson’s neon-lit PSA so often is, but it’s bound to provoke nonetheless. Fueled by Italy’s relaxed social mores, the clique Fraser finds himself drawn into drinks, flirts, and generally cavorts with abandon. But We Are Who We Are juxtaposes this naturalist, slice-of-life approach with a more stilted, melodramatic, even campy mode of being. There are lots of wide, long shots where Guadagnino takes tangible pleasure in watching Grazer futz with his jacket, or Seamón ride a boat, or the entire cast jump into a pool. There are also many scenes that don’t feel entirely of this world.

We Are Who We Are is set in 2016, which we learn when a character dons a MAGA hat without warning. (Hillary Clinton’s DNC speech plays in the background of another scene.) A serious dramatic turn hinges on Kid Cudi, who plays Cait’s father Richard, engaging in a fiercely competitive tug of war. Sarah is gay and married to a woman, but there’s no mention of how that might have affected her military career just a few years removed from the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Fraser and Sarah’s relationship is violent and volatile, though not in the way you’d expect of a seasoned officer and her rebellious son. Their interactions, in particular, tilt the show on its axis, giving it an uncanny feeling that recalls Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope—a.k.a. the last time an Italian filmmaker moonlit for HBO.

Like that series, We Are Who We Are is a coproduction with British network Sky Atlantic, but the similarities between the two shows go beyond structure or geography. Both are cinematic in a deeper sense than nice cinematography or famous faces. This is real, undiluted, art house stuff, mainlined straight into American TV sets. And what The Young Pope was to the late-stage antihero show—part satire, part operatically sincere experiment that uses the trappings of a recognizable form—We Are Who We Are is to the teen drama. You’ve seen kids misbehave and figure themselves out before, but never quite like this.

Not that the show’s pleasures are all that inaccessible. Guadagnino’s most impressive feat here is proving that the wistful, evocative parts of Call Me By Your Name weren’t entirely tied up in nostalgia. The characters in We Are Who We Are listen to Kanye, cop Raf Simons, send voice notes, and in one comically topical scene, discuss the work of poet and MacArthur Grant recipient Ocean Vuong. But all these ultra-contemporary reference points don’t change how universal the emotions at hand are and will always be. The soundtrack and photogenic ocean views seem ready-made for TikTok, where Call Me By Your Name’s “Mystery of Love” is already a popular music cue. A scene when a bunch of teens get drunk and go ziplining could’ve been pulled from 1975.

Some themes are neither new nor timeless, but simply modified. We Are Who We Are isn’t a full-blown gay love story, but a more evolved, ambiguous take on the perspective that sets Guadagnino apart from many peers. The virginal Fraser is in denial about his same-sex attraction, but hung up on a male friend back in New York. He’s still more than happy to help Cait figure out her own relationship to gender, gamely showing her before-and-after photos and teaching her how to define terms like “transgender.” (With all this time spent in close quarters, their friends assume they’re simply dating.) There’s something wickedly subversive to Guadagnino setting all this searching against the backdrop of an honest-to-god military base, filled with chiseled male physiques Guadagnino wastes no time filming in the nude; the soldiers often crudely objectify women as the camera is not-so-crudely objectifying them. The sight of Chloë Sevigny with short hair and a leather jacket alone puts We Are Who We Are in the queer TV canon. This isn’t Looking, which called attention at every turn to its status as a Gay Prestige TV Show. It’s just a distinctly queer show on HBO, reflecting how the culture has moved forward in the half-decade since Looking was on the air.

We Are Who We Are doesn’t have much of a plot, so it’s hard to guess where it’s going based on the four of eight episodes shared with critics. But We Are Who We Are is a textbook example of a journey-over-destination kind of show, meaning there’s not much need to guess in the first place. Instead, you’ll want to spend its time on the air much like the characters: staring at beautiful, charismatic people, not thinking about the future or the past—just the pulsating, all-encompassing, ephemeral present.

An earlier version of this piece misstated who created the show.