Review: ‘We Are Who We Are’ basks in teenage angst and drips reality

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Natalie Duerr

‘We Are Who We Are’ is now streaming on HBO Max.

Natalie Duerr, news staff

In life, there are certain people, places and happenings that start a revolution within us.  These interactions alter our entire life trajectory and offer a new vision for our future. In HBO Max’s series “We Are Who We Are,” the stars have aligned for two adolescents, Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), who seem to have found each other at just the right moment to create a cosmic explosion. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, the acclaimed director of “Call Me By Your Name” (2017), the show is steeped in reality and genuine human experience. He presents their stories without judgment, almost as if the audience is peeking through a curtain into these moments of their lives.

Shows about high school students aren’t unusual, but few capture both the magic and tragedy of being a young person today. For one, it’s rare for these shows to cast teenagers, leaving 20-somethings to portray their less mature, emotionally and physically, counterparts. “We Are Who We Are” features actual teens still fitting into their bodies with the relatable look of acne and questionably bleached and dyed hair. The setting of an American military base in late 2016 exacerbates the regimented high school life that most teenagers are put through.

Caitlin is already established. She has a group of friends, including Britney (Francesca Scorsese), Sam (Ben Taylor), her older brother Danny (Spence Moore) and his friend Craig (Corey Knight). They share the experience of being military children who’ve never really had a place to call home but have been able to find a bit of that in each other. They’re the classic high-school friend group, close as can be but unsure of their future together as they grow into adults. All of that changes when Fraser enters their view.

Fraser is the newbie, his mother (Chloë Sevigny) moves their family from New York to Italy to take over as commander of the base. Fraser is radical and uncontrollable, his bold outfits make him stick out like a sore thumb from the uniformed soldiers. He has no father figure in his life and though one of his mothers is a powerful careerist in the military, she exudes no control over him. He is wild and a loner, clearly lacking the tools to communicate with the world around him. Feeling misunderstood is a definitive experience of growing up, and Fraser is a representation of that pure angst bottled up into a young boy. He has trouble getting along with the rest of Caitlin’s friend group, but there is just something intrinsically linking the two, allowing them to mutate and grow together throughout the show. 

Not only is “We Are Who We Are” a masterclass in storytelling, but the cinematography and set design are also unmatched. The creators originally intended to film on a real-life military base in Italy until the Department of Defense saw the full script and decided to pull their support as they did not agree with the content. Instead of editing the project to receive approval, Elliott Hostetter, the production designer, and the team went to work to create a military base set in just four months. Though taking place in Italy, the army base is so sanitized and institutional that it is only recognizable as American. Guadagnino captures both the stifling sense of the brutalist base while contrasting that to the beauty and freeness of the Italian beaches and villas just outside the gates. 

The viewer’s investment in “We Are Who We Are” isn’t in seeing what chaotic thing the characters will do next or waiting to find out how the creators will push the envelope even further, but from a genuine desire to see how these characters progress. Fraser and Caitlin’s journey is one of self-discovery and evolution, continually pushing back on the boxes that their communities, and maybe even the viewers, have put them in. There isn’t an inherent outcome to crave, but Guadagnino and the writers craft a story that shows our identity and goals are forever shifting. And while the revolution inside these characters is presented on the screen, it may awaken something inside the audience as well. 

With the perfect cast, transportive cinematography, a replayable soundtrack and a Blood Orange concert sequence, “We Are Who We Are” is not only the ultimate way to escape from our reality but an opportunity to understand it better. 

“We Are Who We Are” is a limited series now streaming on HBO Max. While a second season isn’t out of the picture, HBO has not renewed it at the time of publication, but maybe with some more viewers, they’ll see the magic in uniting the cast and crew again.