Roush Review: Teens Adrift in HBO's Sensitive 'We Are Who We Are'
The question sounds simple enough: "So what should I call you?"
But anyone who saw director-producer Luca Guadagnino's haunting 2017 film Call Me by Your Name knows the mysteries of adolescence run deep, and there are no simple answers.
His intimate and provocative new drama We Are Who We Are explores a budding friendship between two teenagers whose growing pains are magnified by their unusual living circumstances, as offspring of U.S. soldiers stationed on an Army base in Italy south of Venice. It's a picturesque seaside setting, though forbiddingly alien to a mercurial city kid like Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer). His personal style — bleached-blond hair, painted fingernails, funky wardrobe – marks him as an iconoclast when he moves in with his two moms, who are both in the military, after his birth mother, Sarah (Big Love's tart Chloë Sevigny), assumes a high-profile position as the base's controversial new commander.
Fraser is instantly intrigued by his neighbor, Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), a seemingly self-possessed queen of her clique who reveals a different side when she sneaks into town, disguised in masculine clothes and using a different name. (Which explains Fraser's introductory "What should I call you?" question when he finally gets up the nerve to approach her.)
With the art-house sensitivity and sensuality he demonstrated in Call Me by Your Name, Guadagnino creates a mood of sexual tension — not of the "Will they or won't they?" variety as much as "Who are they?" — as they deal with issues of gender norms and expectations. (Just because Fraser has lesbian moms and texts "I love you" to a boy back home doesn't mean he identifies as gay.)
Somewhat less successfully, the series also dives into their fraught family dynamics. Caitlin is close to her dad (Kid Cudi) but aloof with her mom (Faith Alibi), who makes an unexpected new friend in Sarah's wife, Maggie (Alice Braga). Fraser's unconventional home life is far more turbulent, when he lashes out at his mom in alarming ways that make him appear unstable. Then when she coddles him, you may wonder how this jibes with her military sense of duty and discipline.
The fourth of eight episodes (airing October 5), the last available for preview, is a stand-alone that borrows from the debauched playbook of Euphoria, when Fraser and Caitlin's group of friends celebrate an impulsive marriage by breaking into an unattended home for a night of mad, drunken revelry. Like Euphoria, it wants to be shocking but soon grows monotonous, and it begs the question: Do military families not care or notice where their kids spend the night?
We Are Who We Are, Series Premiere, Monday, Sept. 14, 10/9c, HBO