Pop Culturing: Luca Guadagnino's 'We Are Who We Are' is a Vibrant Series Celebrating Queer Youth

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Monday September 14, 2020

Jordan Kristine Seamón, left, and Jack Dylan Grazer, right, in a scene from "We Are Who We Are."
Jordan Kristine Seamón, left, and Jack Dylan Grazer, right, in a scene from "We Are Who We Are."  (Source:Yannis Drakoulidis/HBO)

"We Are Who We Are," a new series hitting HBO on Monday, has all the best hallmarks of Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagninio, best known for his gay coming-of-age movie "Call Me By Your Name." The new show is another vibrant coming-of-age story, this time set in a U.S. military base in Venice, Italy, that follows two young teens coming into their own as they discover their sexuality and identity. And like the Oscar-nominated film, it's partly a fish-out-of-water story except one that is not solely focused on romance; in the moving "We Are Who We Are" a Guadagninio celebrates what it means to be young and cherishes the journey it takes to find self-discovery.

Most of Guadagninio's films depict characters entering a new setting; like in his last picture, a remake of the classic 70s Giallo "Suspiria" where Dakota Johnson's character, an America, joins a prestigious ballet academy in Germany. "We Are Who We Are" follows Fraser ("It" star Jack Dylan Grazer), a bleach-blond 14-year-old who paints his nails and takes his style inspiration from Kevin Smith. He's being forced to leave New York City because his parents Sarah (Chloë Sevigny) and Maggie (Alice Braga) are joining a U.S. military base in Venice where Sarah will be the new commander. There, he meets a number of kids his age — and older — where he begins to come blossom, especially after meeting Caitlin (newcomer Jordan Kristine Seamon), who is confident around her friends but more unsure of herself when with Fraser; it's their budding friendship that is at the center of the new show where the boundaries of identity and self beautifully vanish.

Corey Knight, Beatrice Barichella, Spence Moore II, Sebastiano Pigazzi, Francesca Scorsese and Jack Dylan Grazer in a scene from "We Are Who We Are." Photo credit: Yannis Drakoulidis/HBO

"We Are Who We Are" will fill the "Euphoria" void in your TV diet despite being two very different shows. Guadagninio's new series is set in 2016 and is less about the drama and pressures teens face today; Fraser always has his phone and an earbud in his ear but he's never tweeting. Guadagninio, who cowrote the eight episodes along with Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri, is more interested in the beauty of being young during the time when you learn to break the rules. There are rules for everything at the military base for the young army brats living there, the rules are meant to be broken.

"I wasn't too much into 'topics,' and I wasn't too much into the zeitgeist," Guadagninio told The New York Times in a recent interview. "Instead, what I felt was interesting was a TV narrative not from the perspective of action and plot, but more from the perspective of behavior."

"We Are Who We Are" is ultimately about the choices we make and how those decisions impact those around us. The show features a diverse cast of characters who feel like they want to be anywhere else but where they are. With so many traditions and rules, there's an inherent suffocation that comes with living on an army base. Caitlin feels that pressure especially from her father Richard (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. rapper Kid Cudi), a high-ranking soldier who expects a lot from his daughter, and her brother Danny (Spence Moore II), who is also an apparent Trump supporter. (There's a scene in which he orders MAGA hats for himself and Caitlin.)

Jack Dylan Grazer, forefront, Jordan Kristine Seamón, right, and Francesca Scorsese, left, in a scene from "We Are Who We Are." Photo credit: Yannis Drakoulidis/HBO

Venice is a beautiful city but much of the show is spent on the base that resembles Any Town, U.S.A. and we only get glimpses of the city during the first four episodes HBO provided. Outspoken Britney (played by Martin Scorsese's daughter Francesca Scorsese) explains to Fraser that all the army bases around the world are exactly the same so no one gets homesick. Being a young teen who is stuck is ripe for a story and Guadagninio imbues "We Are Who We Are" with a kinetic energy that rarely comes along on the small screen. (His music taste also helps as he's rivaling Martin Scorsese for the director with the best needle drops.) Spiritually, "We Are Who We Are" has more in common with Sean Baker's freewheeling 2018 film "The Florida Project" that features a number of first-time actors than a glossy teen drama. That energy percolates throughout the series but explodes in the fourth episode when the group finds a perfect spot to party and rivals the teen party scene in Oliver Assayas's 1994 film "Cold Water."

"We Are Who We Are" says it all in the title; it is a show about how sometimes people can change their perspectives or their views but that they cannot change who they are; their essence and their true selves. Guadagninio's best work has been showcasing characters going through a deep change — as he did with is stunning 2009 feature "I Am Love" starring Tilda Swinton as a married upper-class woman who falls for a chef. His new series is up there with his best works; an ode to being young, free and breaking the rules.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.