Luca Guadagnino's drama was a loving indie-pop meander about young Americans abroad.

By Darren Franich
November 02, 2020 at 11:00 PM EST
Credit: Yannis Drakoulidis/HBO

We Are Who We Are

  • TV Show

Dec. 4, 2016: The world’s on fire, and Blood Orange is playing at Club Locomotiv. That’s in Bologna, a bus and a train and another train away. Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón) and Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) aren’t talking. Tragedy cut their friendship short. Never mind that Fraser’s mom, Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), and Cait’s dad, Richard (Scott Mescudi), despise each other the way gods hate Titans. Never mind that Cait’s mom, Jenny (Faith Alabi), only just stopped sleeping with Fraser’s other mom, Maggie (Alice Braga). Never mind that Sarah string-pulled Richard out of Italy, which means Cait is 24 hours away from flying back to what’s left of Obama’s America. Even if Cait and Fraser wanted to go to the concert, they barely have any euros left. How can two broke kids make it 130 kilometers across Italy by tonight?

Here, then, was the epic finale of We Are Who We Are: a get-to-the-venue Dev Hynes concert film. It rocked. The HBO drama had problems, overreaching like mad in a quixotic effort to portray everything about the modern world. Director Luca Guadagnino imagined an Adriatic army base at the nexus of every possible identity. Fraser was a (definitely?) gay fashionisto from New York, who struck up a friendship (I think?) with (probably?) transgender army-loving Cait. Their parents were a shuffled pack of cultural trading cards. Sarah was an authoritarian progressive aristocrat nudging her teen son toward his crush on thirtysomething aide Jonathan (Tom Mercier). Richard was a Black Republican with a Nigerian wife and a Muslim son, running illegal gas to pay for his killer ride.

Guadagnino staged one Richard-Sarah conversation like a duel, camera up close on actors’ faces. The third Trump-Clinton debate played on TV in the background: My symbolism sense is tingling! Was the 2016 stuff essential to We Are Who We Are, or was it more luscious wallpaper? A fully inhaled political reading might go something like this: At the far extreme of American soil, right before the nation changes forever, a group of eccentrically normal teenagers explore new horizons of sexuality and self-expression. The awesome fourth hour — one of the best episodes of 2020 — saw Fraser, Cait, and her friends swirling through a glorious utopia of kitschy hedonism. There was a Hawaiian wedding, the party in a rich Russian’s house, the Rolling Stones on the speakers, somebody playing Uncharted 4, drugs and booze and butts and more: life!

Italians know how to make a party look sacred. Was this Eden about to fall? The seventh and worst episode had 99 percent of the plot, with everyone mourning the wartime death of Cait’s deployed friend. The rain fell, the wind blew, cocaine got sniffled, a 19-year-old widow declared, "There is no God!" All this mere hours after the presidential election.

Hard to know just how seriously to take all that, really. Sevigny and Cudi are two flavors of Manhattan cool: a ’90s downtown indie darling who lived an unrated HIV nightmare in Kids, a ’00s emo rapper who was one of How to Make it in America’s fashion victims. Casting them as rigid military heavies counts as mind-blowing science fiction. And the announcement about the dead teenager was a direct Twin Peaks quote: bad news traveling quietly through a high school, friends starting to cry, a climactic pencil snap. The hour-plus episode ended with Cait’s brother Danny (Spence Moore II) embracing Islam, a soaring moment full of Hynes’ celestial score. In the garage, he was praying toward Mecca — which meant he was bowing down to his dad’s new Chevy Silverado.

This was also the episode when Fraser went to Jonathan’s apartment to talk about a Holocaust novel, and Jonathan answered the door wearing just briefs, and then came the three-way dance set to Radiohead’s In Rainbows. So this was a certain kind of TV thing. Obvious critique would be to ponder if any human being has ever acted like any of these people. Grazer is a sparkplug performer, already showing wide range between this and the delightful Shazam. Still, Fraser always came off like a teenager dreamed up in an art gallery. I will buy that someone born after 2000 digs Klaus Nomi; I will allow that the same child could be the world’s last non-problematic Last Tango in Paris fanboy; I do hope kids still read Joan Didion. But you’ll never convince me that this Gen Z Frankenstein reads late Didion.

The finale made me realize something crucial about We Are Who We Are: I absolutely love it. This was vividly felt filmmaking; trying to explain it is way less fun than just dancing to it. Some feature directors get anxious when they’re playing with full TV seasons, overdosing on mystery-teaser plot momentum (cough Sharp Objects cough) or hurling characters through ridiculous now-this-is-personal twists (cough Mindhunter season 2 “my son is also a killer!” cough). The best virtue of long-form storytelling should be patience, and Guadagnino drank deep of atmospherics, tracking seasonal changes in the weather, exploring the landscape around the army base. Some of the teens fell flat, but I appreciated how We Are Who We Are grappled with the messy ways a young person builds a personality. The foundations were myriad and unsteady: parents, friends, cool music, YouTube. The Fraser-Jonathan flirtation was all a bit much, yet when they sang “I Want it That Way” at karaoke, everyone in the bar was having the time of their life. Same, man.

Monday’s finale is one last romanticism overdose. You have to believe two kids lost on the Bologna highways would find a car full of fellow Blood Orange fans — and that the cute boy in the back seat is a trysexual bae sent from heaven. You also have to believe that a lonely kid sorting through a new gender identity could meet a punky-chill bartender with backstage passes — and that Dev Hynes might cheerfully encore with “Time Will Tell” because a fan just now told him it was their favorite song.

I want to believe!! Credit a big part of We Are Who We Are’s success to Seamón, an absolute beginner with an unforced side-eye charisma. She was the glue holding the plot together, and her delicate performance stood a few steps back from the swoony excess. She had a low-key New Wave cool, a good contrast to Grazer's Jim Beam-chugging muchness. Cait was the central mystery that Cait was solving: cutting off her hair, taping her breasts, gluing stubble onto her cheeks, trying out “Harper” as a name.

I know precisely as much about the complexity of teen transgender identity as I know about Dev Hynes: basically nothing. In both cases, I like everything I’m hearing, am excited to learn more, and defer to the experts. I do wonder if there are more severe interpretations of how Cait’s specific struggles were dramatized. The kiss that ends We Are Who We Are could successfully piss off several different communities; I honestly don’t know which pronouns I'd use to describe it. A richer version of this narrative wouldn’t have relegated the politics to background noise. Richard’s oh-shocking MAGA hats never reappeared. Episode 7 featured (nameless) students talking about Afghanistan. Otherwise, this was an army base where everyone respectfully avoided talking about forever wars.

The setting was a bit of a cheat code, allowing the director to distantly address America as a mood while building his own sumptuously soundtracked reality. “Our last day in Italy and we’re eating pizza from Domino’s?” Danny complains in the finale. That line reads sardonic, yet credit Guadagnino for lovingly filming the food court pizza chain with the same gloss he granted a centuries-old cathedral. The director is rocketing off the success of Call Me By Your Name, with a sequel lined up alongside a Scarface remake. I guess I’m excited about both movies; certainly, it will be intriguing to see if voters re-elect Scarface for a second term. Yet I’m so glad HBO and Sky Atlantic gave him this curious opportunity to explore the contemporary moment. We will miss our artful meanders when post-pandemic TV drama doubles down on big-budget action crud.

The finale’s concert is a symphonic closing act. The real high point is earlier, quieter, more delicate, and ridiculously beautiful. Fraser and Cait are on the train ride to Bologna. They have a lot to talk about, and they do not talk about anything. Instead, they listen to “Time Will Tell,” sharing earbuds, leaning their foreheads together. I swear, their faces plus the headphone cords form a heart shape. They start singing, Fraser swaying, Cait’s finger striking the percussion beat. Outside the window is anyplace Italy: smokestacks, graffiti on the overpass, an empty field, dirt piled up on a construction yard. There are so many clouds, and even the clouds look bright. Series grade: A-

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We Are Who We Are

  • TV Show
  • Luca Guadagnino