For sheer, youthful exuberance, the close-knit group of teens at the center of Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are (★★★★☆) can’t be beat. Their joy and abandon permeates the screen — when they’re not also grappling with the disorienting experience of life as Army brats, hailing from U.S. military bases around the world and currently stationed with their parents on a seaside base in Chioggia, Italy. Guadagnino similarly captured that fleeting exhilaration called youth in his Oscar-winning film Call Me By Your Name, depicting Elio and his friends drinking, hanging, and splashing around like gay porpoises.
All that release serves a purpose for We Are Who We Are and for these kids, whose inner lives and lives indoors aren’t always so joyful. Fraser Wilson (Jack Dylan Grazer) arrives on base with his moms Maggie (Alice Braga) and Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), the new base commander. He’s seemingly determined to remain aloof from his fellow American teens abroad — until he lays eyes on Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), a half-Nigerian beauty who intrigues him enough that he spends much of the first episode shadowing her and her crew, including her brother Danny (Spence Moore II), best friend Britney (Francesca Scorsese), and her boyfriend Sam (Benjamin L. Taylor II), around the island.
Fraser is also mightily intrigued by his mom’s charming chief aide, Jonathan (Tom Mercier), but appears uncertain, in general, about his attraction to guys. As he soon discovers, Caitlin lives with uncertainty about her sexuality and gender, and the pair’s quick-setting bond creates sharp, painful ruptures in their other relationships. Mimicking the beachy rhythm of the town, if not the more regimented energy of the military base, We Are Who We Are moves its plots along slowly across the four episodes HBO made available for review. But that’s all the better to dig into each character’s identity and idiosyncrasies.
Episode one, led by It scene-stealer Grazer’s electric performance, sticks closely to Fraser and his two moms. Sevigny offers a sterling dual reflection of Sarah’s confident command of her soldiers, versus what goes on inside the Wilsons’ home. Sarah and Fraser’s closeness might supersede that between Sarah and her wife, fueling a permissiveness that would not fly in the households of many of the parents watching. Fraser drinks, he curses, he brazenly defies authority. In one alarming moment, he strikes Sarah, knocking the wind out of her and us. It’s shocking, but then, not so much. This is, after all, not TV, it’s HBO, a network that knows shock and awe programming.
The show’s writers also know enough about character to offer no easy explanations for why any of this proud circle do what they do. Episode two retells much of the previous hour, but from the point of view of Caitlin, whose closeness to her dad, Richard (rap star Kid Cudi, in a fine turn), suffers in the wake of her newfound friendship and dawning awareness of her identity.
But Richard, who clearly feels he was passed over for command of the post, might be experiencing his own identity crisis. Stories overlap, intersect, and collide elegantly here, bolstered by tart, unforced humor and a feast of natural beauty — from Venetian lagoons lined by tall grasses, to kids being kids in the midst of paradise and violence.
We Are Who We Are airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on HBO. Visit www.hbo.com.
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