Anyone who’s seen Luca Guadagnino’s work, including his acclaimed adaptation of Call Me By Your Name, will find the languid, lovely images of We Are Who We Are familiar. The new HBO series about teens coming of age on an American military base in Veneto, Italy is full of bodies slicked with sweat and salt water, cold drinks drunk in hot sun, an immersive sensory experience from the start. And yet, in its first episode, there’s also a disconnect. A tonal dissonance that never quite clicks. Moments that unnerve and then just breeze by. It’s difficult to be fully present in this pilot and to not want to pick at its wounds.
Chloë Sevigny and Alice Braga play Sarah and Maggie, mothers to Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer), a difficult 14-year-old boy who very much did not want to make the move from New York City to a base in Italy and who perhaps left a lover behind who isn’t answering his calls. Sarah is an officer brought in to command the base, while Maggie is a military nurse. But it’s hard to get a grasp on either character this early in the series, especially Maggie, who plays a very passive role in her relationship with Sarah. The relationships throughout the pilot are a big part of what pulls away from its immersive setting. We Are Who We Are presents a messy family, which is rife with potential for drama, complex relationship dynamics, and compelling narratives. But the mess just feels like mess at the moment.
Sarah and Fraser’s relationship perplexes from the start. In the opening scene, she hands him a mini bottle of booze when he says he’s thirsty. Maggie just watches in quiet disapproval. Later, when Sarah hurts herself assembling furniture, Fraser sucks at her bleeding finger to comfort her. Then, during a midnight snack, Fraser slaps his mother across the face when she refuses to cut leftover pot roast into thinner slices for him. The slap is, of course, more about the move than it is about the pot roast. Throughout, that teenage sense of having no control over one’s life permeates Fraser’s movements. But the slap is sudden and then suddenly undercut by Sarah pulling Fraser into a hug. He tells her he feels dead, and then he runs into another room, shutting her out and declaring “invisible shield.”
At times, Fraser acts significantly younger than he is and at others, like when he asks Maggie if she really loves Sarah, much older and jaded. Maybe that’s all tied up in the extremes of being a teenager, but I’m not completely sold on it. I’m even more confused about Maggie opening up so honestly about her relationship with Sarah—who she says kisses her like she’s kissing a mirror—to their teen son. Maggie sort of just orbits Sarah and Fraser at the moment.
Also, everyone seems to be blatantly ignoring, maybe even amused by, the fact that Fraser might be an alcoholic. If there’s a reason for this—like Sarah or Maggie having addictions of their own—it hasn’t been made clear yet. It is a pilot, and I’m willing to wait and see where things go. But it’s also a pilot that pushes past the 55-minute mark and yet doesn’t provide much context for these characters and some of their stranger behaviors. It’s not yet clear exactly why Sarah and Fraser have the relationship that they do. It seems to come from shared trauma, but that’s really me extrapolating instead of using anything provided in the actual writing. The performances, especially from Grazer who has teen ennui on lock, buoy some of the vague writing, but it still isn’t enough to bring it all together quite yet.
Fraser’s a fish out of water on the base, awkwardly acclimating to his new surroundings. Britney (Francesca Scorsese), a very forward teen girl, gives him his initial orientation, teaching him that while he can’t drink on base it’s easy to do in the outside world. She pulls him off base to the beach, where we’re also introduced to Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón) and her brother Danny (Spence Moore II) and a gaggle of other teens whose friend group it’s clear Fraser will become embedded in even though he starts as an outsider. The embarrassment Fraser feels in some of these scenes brims with cringey teenage tension.
Many of the fraught teen emotions at play throughout the pilot do feel, for the most part, genuine and compelling, especially outside of Fraser’s relationship with his mother, which is the most underdeveloped branch of the narrative at the moment. Fraser is rendered with interesting details, like his obsession with astrological signs and also his distinct personal style—all painted nails, baggy leopard shorts, designer t-shirts, floral prints, shaggy bleached hair, and the shadow of a mustache. The series so far definitely has a stronger grasp on its teens than its adults. But its boundaries blur in ways that don’t really make sense yet, particularly when it comes to the sweeping under the rug of Fraser’s more erratic behaviors and constant search for booze.
While the pilot mostly focuses on Fraser’s struggles to acclimate, at the very end, it dips into the interior life of Caitlin, who Fraser witnesses exploring gender identity in a cafe off base. Here’s where a blatant misstep on the show’s part becomes evident though; We Are Who We Are has cast a cis actress in the role of a transmasc or gender-nonconforming character (in the pilot, we don’t yet know exactly how Caitlin identifies, but the trailer provides more information). Casting cis people in trans roles is lazy, harmful, transphobic. It reflects an ongoing failure in Hollywood to listen to trans people. Time will tell how Caitlin is written, but this casting decision raises several red flags.
Another teen coming-of-age series I reviewed recently was Euphoria, which turned out to be a lot of flash with little substance, and while the style of We Are Who We Are is much different—slower, quieter, less glitter more grime—the pilot makes me wonder if it’s going to fall into that same trap or eventually transcend some of the flatness of its characters and narrative. We Are Who We Are doesn’t know what it is yet, and that’s maybe the point. But right now it’s just a dreamy Italian seaside-scape without much filling it out.
- I really do love the astrology talk.
- “You’re born to command; I should know,” Maggie says to Sarah, giving us a very clear look into their relationship dynamic.
- It’s a little too early to tell, but I’m worried the show might try to have it both ways by making Sarah a little anti-military and yet still very much so in the military. So far, the base provides an interesting setting, but it remains somewhat surface level. There’s a brief mention of the violence that runs rampant on military bases, but it’s almost glib in tone.
- Fraser reads queer apocalypse novel The Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs with great enthusiasm.
- The music is great so far.