There's a dreamy quality to everything director Luca Guadagnino has made; a lush, indulgent, singular space that creates a perfect setting for coming-of-age stories, even if the majority of his films (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, Suspiria) haven't really addressed that topic. Of course, the one that did, 2017's Oscar-nominated Call Me By Your Name, did it so perfectly that it now feels like this is Guadagnino's wheelhouse. That film's queer coming-of-age story was entirely removed from the present day and time, yet tethered emotionally, sonically, and circumstantially to the present moment. It's almost impossible to watch Guadagnino's new HBO miniseries We Are Who We Are and not immediately think of Call Me By Your Name. A young American kid abroad with his family encounters a beguiling stranger and works his way through his burgeoning sexuality and fraught emotions, all amid well observed production design and stylish music? Sign us up.
Unlike Call Me By Your Name's liquidly nostalgic 1980s setting, We Are Who We Are is set in the more recent past — 2016, to be exact. And while Guadagnino takes the opportunity to throw artifacts of Trump vs. Hillary on any passing television screen, he also displays an open-ended, lingering fascination with what a coming of age story looks like to young people today. It's no anthropological study delivering sermons on Gen Z and their mysterious ways, but the marriage of Guadagnino's luxe Italian gaze with these very modern characters yields some interesting results.
The story opens on Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer), as he arrives in Veneto, Italy a perfectly moody and sullen teen getting dragged by his moms, Sarah (Chloe Sevigny) and Maggie (Alice Braga) away from New York City to a military base where Sarah has been named the new commander. Sporting painted nails, cheetah-print skater shorts, and a bleach-fried mop of hair, he's the picture of a young teen trying "artistic" on for size. Barricading himself inside the cocoon of his earbuds and antisocial 'tude, Fraser lurks around the outer rim of the social scene on the base, observing the other teenagers who either intrigue him, laugh at him, or beckon him closer. One such beguiling teen is Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamon), his next-door neighbor on the base. Guadagnino initially layers Fraser and Caitlin's stories next to each other, with the first episode being his story and the second being hers, watching their timelines intersect and overlap, sometimes doubling back on themselves and sometimes lurching forward as they get to know each other.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre could begin to map out this story of two young Americans abroad, in those early, emo, post-pubescent days. They'll fall in love, of course, face obstacles, fumble around into early sexual experiences, make dumb decisions, and then either end up starting over, having learned something about themselves, or (more likely) end up apart, having undergone a crucial and formative experience. And that may ultimately be where We Are Who We Are ends up (critics were given four of the show's eight episodes to review), but the route the story will follow is unclear. Intriguingly, the show luxuriates in the fuzzy swirl of their gender and sexuality, all fluid and curious and halting. As Fraser and Caitlin get closer, they don't lose themselves in each other, but instead become more and more articulate about themselves. It's no accident that Fraser spends the bulk of the first episode nearly nonverbal and Caitlin is as much a mystery to us as she appears to be to herself. The imprecise nature of not only their connection, but also their awareness of themselves is a thrill to watch. Fraser's sexuality is very much an open question. There's a "Mark" back home, with some kind of deep connection now severed by distance. Caitlin, for her part, is fascinated by gender expression, at one point dressing as a boy to visit a local coffee shop. The road ahead is anything but straight and narrow.
While Guadagnino has built his reputation on lush Italian settings, he adapts quite well to the army base. It's decidedly less swoony than the vineyards and gardens of his previous films, but Luca still has magic to forge, and he's able to transform the concrete barracks into something grand, mysterious, and romantic. An annual tug-of-war is adorned with costumed revelry and dancing in the town square. Italy, irrepressible as ever, springs forth through every crack and crevice. The irregular cultural borders of a military base on the Italian seaside provide an ideal setting for Guadagnino to explore the blurred edges of Gen Z coming-of-age stories and relationships, and not just between Fraser and Caitlin. Fraser's relationship with Sarah unsettlingly bounces between extreme volatility and infantile vulnerability. Caitlin's own familial relationships seem to transgress what we would expect from them as well. The roiling, hormonal rebellion of youth mashes up against the regimented order of the base in any number of messy ways, setting the table perfectly for Fraser and Caitlin. Their friendship is something surprisingly rare on screen, if deeply familiar to many of the show's viewers: the kind of formative friendship that both is and isn't romantic. Caitlin's friends are constantly prodding her to define her relationship with Fraser, and the audience might do the same, but there's more going on.
As the series progresses, it expands the canvas to the other teens on the base, all with their own little internal struggles. Caitlin's brother, Danny (Spence Moore II) carries an anger and darkness; her best friend Britney (Francesca Scorsese, daughter of Martin), seems wary of Caitlin and Fraser; as does Caitlin's ex, Sam (Ben Taylor). The American army brats mingle with the local Italians in a way that will seem familiar to fans of Call Me By Your Name. For a while this all seems to be character beats shading at the periphery, but they come together in a fourth episode that lets the teens run wild in indulgent yet deeply illuminating ways, even as the spectre of military deployment hangs over many of them.
So much of this show is enhanced by the performances, especially those at its center. Jack Dylan Grazer — son of Hollywood mega-producer Brian Grazer — is almost unnervingly authentic as Fraser. Grazer has already impressed in It and Shazam by playing wisecracking-but-lovable youths with a surprising degree of self-possessed verve. Here however, he buries himself beneath Fraser's many distancing layers, letting moments of curiosity and vulnerability peek through, punctuating them with instances of shocking volatility. Jordan Kristine Seamon's performance is far more interior, but she draws out the audience's fascination with her. Scott Mescudi (a.k.a. Kid Cudi) plays Caitlin's military father, and their relationship, while not quite the semi-violent tempest of Fraser and Sarah's, nevertheless feels fraught. For her part, Chloe Sevigny is a fascinating and contradictory agent of chaos, constantly blurring the lines between her military position, her sexuality, and her often problematic relationship with her son. It's exactly the type of performance you trust Sevigny to deliver.
We Are Who We Are, like last year's Euphoria, is another example of HBO's brand expansion into youth-centered programming. Which isn't to say the network's mantra is about to be changed to "It's not Nickelodeon, it's HBO." These shows deliver high art and complex stories for Gen Z characters, yet they're just as fascinating to older observers. If not more so. They allow the Guadagninos of the world to meld their own romanticized coming-of-age stories with the undefinable world of kids today, ultimately arriving at something new and messy, yet just as worthy of a deep sigh and a swoon.
We Are Who We Are premieres September 14th at 10:00 PM ET on on HBO.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.