We Are Who We Are is available now on BBC iPlayer
Television Drama has a long and rich history in reflecting the journey from childhood to adulthood. However, with a few notable exceptions, few shows have managed to convey the real emotional journey of adolescence; with directors and writers often choosing to embellish and exaggerate the turmoil of youth. But, now and again, a drama comes along that understands the joy, fear, experimentation and apprehension of teenage life. These dramas are rare, their honesty tapping into our long-forgotten adolescent memories. With Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are one of these rare beautiful and intricate TV gems.
Guadagnino’s ability to immerse his audience in delicate, person-centred stories of identity and vulnerability is renowned. His adaptation of Call Me By Your Name in 2018; a sun-drenched tale of desire and sexual awakening. The journey of Elio both bittersweet, intoxicating and sensual in the hands of Timothée Chalamet. While at the same time, bathed in the complex emotions of adolescence and emerging identity.
Now, in his first foray into the world of television, Guadagnino brings this trademark person-centred approach to episodic drama. In an eight-part coming of age story that is vivid, poetic and beautiful in direction, performances and cinematography. Its screenplay both intelligent and intricate in scope. With the viewer allowed brief entry into the private teenage world of Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Caitlin ‘Harper’ (Jordan Kristine Seamón). Both brought together by the military careers of their parents at a US base in Italy during 2016. Their emerging identities caught up in the friendships and family relationships surrounding them.
Opening with two episodes that mirror each other, but from two different perspectives. We follow 14-year-old Fraser as he arrives in Italy from New York. His mothers Sarah and Maggie (Chloe Sevigny and Alice Braga) starting a new life on the Italian base; Sarah taking over as Colonel. But, for Fraser, the move is filled with both anger, excitement and fear. His first day spent floating through his new home; assessing each building and person with growing disdain. His only fleeting pleasure the sportsfield changing rooms, where a naked officer named Jonathan (Tom Mercier) envokes a flustered Fraser to freeze. His interest sparked in the older officer, while not yet knowing his role as his mothers assistant. However, on meeting social butterfly Britney (Francesca Scorcese), Fraser finds himself invited to the beach; avoiding eye contact with Britney as she attempts to flirt with him.
However, as he sits on the beach, it is Caitlin, otherwise known as Harper, who intrigues Fraser. Her defiance and difference speaking to him on a deeper level than the other kids. With the second episode reflecting Fraser’s first day on the base from Harper’s perspective. The episode ending just as a new, urgent and complicated friendship bound in platonic love begins. And it is within the nuanced relationship between Fraser and Harper that We Are Who We Are sings with a rare sincerity and beauty.
For Fraser and Harper, there are no simple black and white rules, both exploring their sexual orientation, gender identity and emotions free from constraint. Their feelings of difference tied to a need for experimentation. While at the same time, the individualistic and often selfish nature of adolescence surrounds their actions. The need for company clashing with the need to collect new experiences and explore personal boundaries. In a world where adult notions of love, respect and identity feel vague and alien to their personal experience.
Meanwhile, the environment of conformity in which they live holds no power in their private world. The militaristic nature of their lives unceremoniously pushed the curb.
Here, there are no cliffhanger endings, no dramatic twists and turns, and no lazy teenage stereotypes. The delicate yet immersive story focused on the daily interactions and choices of a group of teens thrown together abroad. Their lives trapped in the void between the constructed Americana of the military base and the freedom of Italian culture. The action on-screen bound in a documentary-like realism, as conversations overlap, actions appear random, and joy sharply descends into anger or pain. A dynamic never more powerfully reflected than in a house party during episode four. The rampant behaviour of the teens buzzing with electric and uncontrollable energy, almost mirroring Gaspar Noé’s Climax; our very presence as observers an invasion of privacy.
At the same time, the 2016 election of Trump lingers on TV screens throughout the base. His journey to the White House heralding a change that feels remote from the diversity of camp life. The freedoms of Italian culture providing a much-needed tonic. However, his election also symbolises a more significant disparity, one that talks to the isolation of life abroad. The mini-America constructed in the Italian countryside jarring against, while also, at times reflecting the ideals of an ‘America First’ ideology.
Meanwhile, We Are Who We Are never forgets the role of parents in defining the outcomes of their children. With the adult need to retain control, clashing with the desire to understand the young adults they created. For example, Fraser’s biological mother hides the details of his father from him, keeping him trapped in a bubble of childhood naivety. While at the same time allowing him to explore more adult experiences free from control; her boundaries and support mixed and confusing. While at the same time, Harper’s militaristic dad can’t let go of the child who used to hang on his every word. His need for control stifling, in a family, made up of boys. The result, a realistic portrait of family life; with parents just as insecure as the teenagers they seek to support.
Bathed in stunning cinematography, We Are Who We Are transcends the boundaries of TV drama in its sheer cinematic power. The frequent use of the freeze-frame reflecting the snapshot memories we collect throughout our lives. While at the same time, the camera follows, rather than dictates the journey we take alongside Fraser and Harper. But, when you add to this the genuinely outstanding performances from Jack Dylan Grazer and Jordan Kristine Seamón. We Are Who We Are becomes one of the most creative, engaging and beautiful dramas of the year. Its intimate portrayal of identity, conformity and rebellion shining with originality, love and innovation.
Director: Luca Guadagnino