Entertainment

HBO's 'We Are Who We Are' Is a Hearty Dose of Beautiful and Prickly Teen Angst

The new series from Luca Guadagnino finds the teens of an Army base in Italy getting up to no good and exploring their identities.

we are who we are
HBO

When Call Me By Your Name came out in 2017, director Luca Guadagnino became the poet laureate of hormonal teens in stunning Italian locations. In many ways, his new HBO series We Are Who We are feels like a 21st century follow-up to that 1980s-set film. It's a tale of friendship and identity by the sea at an American Army base and relies on an incredible soundtrack. Somehow We Are Who We Are can both satisfy your wanderlust and paint a picture of displaced American mores and imperialism. Whether you've watched the premiere and want to know more or are gearing up to dive in, let us prep you for this emotional rollercoaster.

What is We Are Who We Are about? 

The series opens fixated on the bleach-blond mop of Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer), who arrives in Italy complaining bitterly about lost luggage. His mother, Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), is set to become the new commander on the American Army base in Italy, but he could not care less about her status. Fraser is hard to pin down. Is he just a brat intent on provoking everyone around him, or is he unstable in another way? Sarah coddles him. When he says he's thirsty, she hands him a mini bottle of alcohol from the plane. When he slaps her after she doesn't cut his roast the way he wants it, she draws him in for a hug.

Sarah's wife, Maggie (Alice Braga), is alternately his confidante and his enemy. Fraser stomps around the base in fuzzy leopard-print shorts, determined to not fit in, but he's soon taken in by fellow teen Brittany (Francesca Scorsese), who drags him along to the beach with her friends. He's uninterested in everyone except for Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), who he begins to essentially spy on, following her off base when she dons her father's clothes and heads to a local watering hole. Fraser, who quotes Raf Simons and reads William S. Burroughs, is very much the protagonist of the premiere, but he's only one facet of the story Guadagnino is trying to tell.  

What can I expect from future episodes? 

The second episode, which will debut next Monday, rehashes the first from Caitlin's perspective. Without revealing too much, it introduces her as someone who is just as enigmatic as Fraser, but in a completely different way. While Fraser is all bombast, Caitlin is secretive. She experiments with her gender without even seeming to realize what she's doing, adopting the name "Harper" in certain situations. She's close with her dad (Kid Cudi) and doesn't flinch when he orders MAGA hats to wear in their home. By the end of her hour, it's clear she and Fraser are going to start building their own little world in this enclave of militarism. 

What does the Army have to do with this? 

Even when the characters aren't explicitly talking about their roles in the military, Guadagnino keeps its presence in every frame. Whether it's soldiers conducting drills or the banality of the grocery store, he highlights the regimented nature of life on a base to which his young heroes simply cannot conform. Through his sound design, Guadagnino highlights the chatter one might hear in this space: casual misogyny and fear of the other. 

Why do I recognize this cast? 

Seamón is a complete newcomer, who has her first role of any sort as Cate, but Grazer has quietly been racking up credits in major Hollywood properties. He's probably best known for his work in It and Shazam!, but it's a major leap for him to take on Fraser, a messy character who can highlight the extent of his abilities. Scorsese is also a relative unknown, save for her name. (She is, as you might surmise, the daughter of director Martin Scorsese.)

Meanwhile, Kid Cudi, alongside his rap career, has always dabbled in TV, especially in HBO shows, going all the way back to How to Make It in America. Other notable performers include Tom Mercier, who wowed in last year's Israeli film Synonyms and plays an alluring member of the corps. And, of course, Chloë Sevingy, who is an indie icon. 

we are who we are
HBO

When does We Are Who We Are take place? 

It doesn't become abundantly clear until the second episode that this is not exactly the present day. The show takes place in 2016, when Trump was only running for office, before he got elected. It's a decision that makes all the difference: There's a sense of dread that represents an optimism about to be crushed. 

Why is the music so good? 

Simple answer: The score is composed by Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange. From Call Me By Your Name, which featured original songs by Sufjan Stevens, to Suspiria, which had music by Thom Yorke, it's obvious that Guadagnino has excellent taste in music and this is no different. Hynes' piano-driven work is evocative and prickly and demands a vinyl pressing instantly. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.