First Look Review: ‘We Are Who We Are’ (2020) Flourishes Under The Italian Sun

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“Fraser repeatedly pokes at the bruise of his longing, the ache is tantalising.”

In an oversized orange hoodie and leopard print pants with multi-coloured painted nails, Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a teenager draped in unique fabrics. He arrives on the screen with an influx of questioning: Where is my luggage? What’s your zodiac sign? Who am I? At the heart of Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are, a queer coming-of-age show, is the self-questionning of Fraser’s identity. 

Arriving on a U.S. military base in Italy with his mothers, Sarah and Maggie (Chloë Sevigny and Alice Braga), Fraser is a head-strong 14-year-old absorbed in his own world. He explores the military camp as if it is a maze invented solely for his entertainment. Fraser’s mother, Sarah Wilson, is made the new commander of the camp but Fraser is more interested in Jonathan (Tom Mercier), a soldier who is captured in his lingering gaze. Fraser’s attention is pulled in another direction when he spots Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamõn) and discovers she is his next-door neighbour. His intrigue grows when during one of his wanderings he hears Caitlin reciting the Walt Whitman poem ‘I Am He That Aches with Love.’ 

The Whitman reference is not lost in We Are Who We Are. Whitman’s poem asks: “does not all matter, aching, attract all matter?” Fraser is asking similar questions of his own identity and desires. His yearning gaze is akin to a magnetic force that locks onto a figure and is drawn closer to them. Whitman notes it is as simple as matter being drawn to other matter while Guadagnino articulates the complicated facets of desire through the hormonal perspective of Fraser. Defined by an exploration of the philosophy of adolescence, We Are Who We Are grounds the heightened emotional state of young people in their personal explorations of identity. Fraser is exploring his sexuality while Caitlin is exploring her gender.

The two man characters, Fraser and Caitlin, sit together on rocks by the ocean
Image courtesy of HBO

Luca Guadagnino has become somewhat synonymous with simmering desire under the Italian sun, We Are Who We Are is no different. The presence of Call Me by Your Name hovers in every frame, as if we are in the same universe, only a couple of miles down the road. Guadagnino’s camera is as evocative as ever. The blistering heat leaves every character with a glossy sheen of sweat. Eyes squint against sun rays and Guadagnino, as always, lingers on bodies as desire swelters and the senses are overwhelmed by salt air and the yell of drill sergeants. 

It is telling of Guadagnino’s approach that the possibility of a meet-cute romance between Fraser and Caitlin evolves into a queer friendship – the director is willing to confront convention in many facets of the show. What becomes clear from the beginning is that time in We Are Who We Are is illusive, it can slip by as quickly as sand through fingers or meander like the slowly setting sun. In balancing both exhilaration of teen hormonal desire and slow-burn pacing, Guadagnino shifts between these poles which lay the foundations for the young man to grow into the concept of who he believes he is. Fraser repeatedly pokes at the bruise of his longing, the ache is tantalising.

Early on Fraser is told: “without friends you’re nothing.” As the new kid on the base, he has the chance to discover himself in an exterior-interior confrontation of the self. The Italian seaside town of Chioggia hosts a coming-of-age opportunity for both Fraser and Caitlin to navigate themselves and their relationships. We Are Who We Are centres on these dynamics of identity that impact connections between characters. The show is sensitively invested in an exploration of young people, less concerned with planning for the future and more focused on trying to manoeuvre through every moment. 

Directed by: Luca Guadagnino

Created by: Luca Guadagnino, Paolo Giordano, Francesca Manieri, Sean Conway

Cast: Jack Dylan Grazer, Jordan Kristine Seamõn, Chloë Sevigny, Alice Braga, Kid Cudi

Available on: HBO