Luca Guadagnino Contemplates the Yearnings of Youth in HBO’s Ethereal ‘We Are Who We Are’

Something about sunshine and beaches always makes them the ideal setting for stories that meditate on the very feeling of youth. The sea, the awakening of hormonal boldness, the yearning for freedom before the responsibilities of adulthood, it all comes together in these zones defined by brightness and heat. Director Luca Guadagnino’s first series for HBO, the eight-part “We Are Who We Are,” is defined by mood. It feels like a memory more than a plotted storyline. Melding European arthouse with HBO’s reputation for high quality programming, it is a series that invites you to just flow with it without expectations. 

Set in a U.S. military base in Chioggia, Italy, the “story” focuses primarily on Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer), son of a military lesbian couple, Sarah (Chloë Sevigny) and Maggie (Alice Braga). Sarah has just been made commander of the base and so Fraser finds himself adapting to a new, confined home which can’t contain his manic personality. His relationship with Sarah is loving and dysfunctional, prone to sudden outburst and then tender affection. On his own Fraser explores the base and its microcosmic community, quickly falling into a circle of fellow army brats that includes Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón). Caitlin comes from a home with its own dynamic, with a Black American dad, Richard (Kid Cudi) and Nigerian mother Jenny (Faith Alabi), as well as an overbearing brother, Danny (Spence Moore II). With Caitlin, Fraser begins to develop a bond as they experience life at the base away from the adults when the children go wild, partying, experiencing sexual awakenings, exploring what identity even means for Gen-Z, as in the background the U.S. prepares to elect Donald Trump president.

“We Are Who We Are” is a serial ode to youth itself. Guadagnino returns to the kind of sun-kissed environment and elegiac romanticism of his 2017 “Call Me by Your Name,” except now instead of the ‘80s the narrative is set firmly in this era and its own attitudes. And as with his 2018 remake of “Suspiria,” Guadagnino is less concerned with linear storytelling and more with the evocation of feeling. There are some general characters here to follow, but they function as personalities all living within the same environment, not as people carrying out a plot. A few writers have already compared this show to HBO’s acclaimed, edgy “Euphoria,” but the sensibility is completely different. “We Are Who We Are” is not about visceral moods or even the darker shades of Gen-Z, it is a more general portrait of young people forced to live away from home, tasting freedom whenever they can together. The editing is patient, even serene. An orgy at a mansion is more playful than intense, and Guadagnino’s camera shies away from being graphic, preferring to pan over the scattered clothing and flip-flops at the edge of a pool, the way naked beauty looks laying on a bed at sunrise. One doesn’t sense that Guadagnino despairs for this generation, but seeks to create a record of it. Compared to Guadagnino, Larry Clark’s famously provocative films like “Kids” or “Bully” look like apocalyptic prophecies.

It is not all sunshine, of course, and the writing by showrunner Sean Conway subtly includes intensity at just the right moments. Fraser and Sarah love each other, but he explodes when she humiliates him with childhood stories when Caitlin stays for dinner, even yanking back her hair and snarling his anger. Her own responses are also acidic, delivered with a controlled tension by Sevigny (“don’t be jealous because she likes me”). But this is not a story of bad parenting and rebellious teens, instead it is a reflection on how families are complicated, and never like the ideal atomic arrangements we see on TV. Later on two teenagers will decide to get married, and we sense the Italian girl agreeing to wed an American boy from the base is unsure about her decision, but such are the impulsive acts of youth. The same goes for the show’s treatment of sexuality. It’s not a show specifically about being gay or defying gender, but our growing questioning of gender norms and sexual binaries is present as a part of contemporary life. Fraser dyes his hair and dresses in a colorful, eye-catching style. People immediately make assumptions, but he lives outside of them and bluntly tells someone that just because he has lesbian parents doesn’t make him gay. But he’s also not written as a stereotypical cisgender person either. 

Reviewing “We Are Who We Are” can feel like a series of descriptions of personalities. The show functions as a series of dreamlike moments and ethereal scenes. Politics is a subtext, as when Caitlin’s dad orders red MAGA hats, or during an event on base as an ad runs with Trump calling for a Muslim ban. Sarah enters an office where Hillary Clinton is giving her 2016 Democratic convention speech on the TV and tells herself Hillary may be her type of woman, but not her type of politician. The local Italians will at times pepper their dialogue with cynical remarks about Americans and their sense of imperial hubris. But it’s all in the background, because the focus is the teens and rarely do high schoolers obsess over more than themselves, with some exceptions of course. 

What lingers from “We Are Who We Are” are moments. A water fight in slow motion, Fraser wandering Chioggia in drunken rhapsody while chugging wine, Caitlin sitting near him on a couch with obvious sexual tension, but neither knows how to even grasp it. Impromptu weddings and mansion parties, and late night use of the military base for wild antics, all this forms the spirit of Guadagnino’s vision in this series. Even jealousy, when it creeps, burns at a smoldering volume. The supporting cast has the vivid power of both real personalities and sometimes poetic ideas of being young. The standout is Francesca Scorsese, daughter of director Martin Scorsese, as Britney, a worldly friend of Caitlin’s who has ego and vivacity. 

“We Are Who We Are” is a show about a particular environment, about the way people relate to each other at a certain age when living in a distant place. It matters not what generation you belong to when watching, because while it is firmly set in a specific moment in time, its yearnings are very human. Fitting in and finding yourself as eternal life quests. Guadagnino’s atmosphere and mood are transcendental, because wanting freedom and feeling desire have no national boundaries.

We Are Who We Are” premieres Sept. 14 and airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.