Summer is a time for adolescent experimentation: for new friendships and whirlwind romances and adventures that careen out of control. The acclaimed film-maker Luca Guadagnino has so beautifully crystallised the season’s sultry pleasures in previous work (most notably Call Me by Your Name), and his eight-part series We Are Who We Are is a similarly sensuous mood piece that viscerally evokes summer in sweat, seawater and sunbeams. Watching it, you can practically feel the breeze on your face, the sand in your toes. Guadagnino lovingly details the ephemera of summer, from the rumpled T-shirts to the hastily shed flip-flops and frosted beer glasses.
The show languidly unfurls on an American military base in Italy, where a community of US soldiers reside with their families. The director takes the institution’s army-brat teenagers as his principal subjects, teasing out the fluctuating dynamics between them while also diving headlong into each of their personal journeys towards selfhood. Despite its declarative title, We Are Who We Are presents its characters in flux, trying on and shrugging off different identities in search of their authentic selves.
A decidedly Gen Z sensibility defines the series, which resists categorising its two leads, both of whom operate on a free-flowing, live and let live philosophy. Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer), the newest arrival to the base, is a bundle of contradictions. One moment, he is a sensitive type, slumped carelessly in a boat reading Ocean Vuong and sharing poetic principles (“We’re going to wear our souls as skin”); the next, he is throwing a tantrum or cutting down his mothers in explosive arguments. In much the same way, his friend Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón) is enigmatic, her desires pinballing erratically between love interests and social circles and family responsibilities.
We Are Who We Are is refreshingly modern in its conception of gender and sexuality, which is as fluid as the Adriatic lapping the Puglia shore. Conventional wisdom would read Fraser’s tufty, peroxide hair, chipping black nail varnish and attraction to a male soldier as a rejection of heterosexuality, and yet he fulminates against all labels. Caitlin, for her part, slips away from the barracks to play with her gender expression, baptising herself Harper and presenting as a boy in local trattorias. Again, this might lead us to conclude that she is gender-fluid, but the show never divulges, leaving an open-endedness through Caitlin’s shifting understanding of her own body. Admirably, Guadagnino does not hold his characters at arm’s length or treat them as specimens to be judged – he takes pains to know them in all their inconsistencies. The director puts us squarely in their point of view and, on several occasions, in their headphones, plunging us into the teens’ worlds via an enveloping soundscape of Loyle Carner, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar.
The adolescents’ lives are governed by impermanence. Given the instability of their parents’ military careers, at any moment they will have to uproot and start over. This impending displacement fuels their carpe diem spirit. Beneath the show’s insouciant tone, there is a nagging sense of urgency. The youngsters gorge on experiences – snatching handfuls of spaghetti directly out of a pan, greedily funnelling strands into their mouths – not knowing when they will be able to let loose again. What is so enticing about We Are Who We Are is that the teenagers’ restless impatience always mingles with possibility. They are eager to break the chain of their lethargic, sun-bleached days with ziplines and paintball guns and a portable speaker used as a volleyball. The characters, catching the whiff of death every time a fresh battalion of soldiers ships out from the base, are acutely aware of life’s fragility and seek to protect their bacchanalian delights.
More than a sequence of artfully composed shots, the series has real bite to it, sketching out an undercurrent of violence that edges the prevalent frivolity in darkness. We Are Who We Are alludes to homophobia, machismo and, in several jarring moments, captures physical brawls. The layers of the sound mix are particularly chilling in this respect, demoting GIs’ gloating about a gang rape to background noise to indicate how inconsequential the attack is to them. With these references to intolerance and assault, Guadagnino fleetingly but firmly criticises the culture of hypermasculinity that army life fosters.
Despite being grounded in a far-from-perfect world, We Are Who We Are floats through stretches of teenage longing and self-actualisation in an easy-going lull. In an alternative reality, I would have watched this show at its Cannes Film Festival premiere, presumably after wandering down the Croisette in a sundress, ice-cream cone in hand. The series hits differently now; it feels like a time capsule of the 2020 summer we never had. For everyone else who has also spent the better part of eight months trapped in the same room doing their bit to reduce the spread of coronavirus, vicariously travelling to Guadagnino’s exuberant, bohemian vision of Italy is a welcome respite.
‘We Are Who We Are’ will be available to watch on BBC iPlayer from Sunday 22 November. The first four episodes were screened for this review.
In need of some at-home inspiration? Sign up to our free weekly newsletter for skincare and self-care, the latest cultural hits to read and download, and the little luxuries that make staying in so much more satisfying.
You Might Also Like