There’s a moment in the final episode of Luca Guadagnino’s incredible miniseries, We Are Who We Are, that completely transcends a world of labels and boxes. The two lead characters Caitlin and Fraser, who have found love in subversion, break a promise they made to each other in the initial moments of their relationship. This unwoven agreement is nothing more than a metaphor for the fleeting relationships of one’s youth – never permanent, always locked in the amplified drama of adolescence. What makes these formative interactions so long-lasting is their novelty, and Guadagnino beautifully captures that with the series.
We Are Who We Are opens with two iterations of the same day; 14 year-old Fraser’s arrival at the military base in Veneto, Italy. Accompanied by his biological mother Colonel Sarah Wilson and her wife Major Maggie Teixeira (Alice Braga), Fraser is introduced as bizarre, uncontrolled, and apathetic. The trio travel from New York City to their new quarters, where they are welcomed by neighbor Jenny Poythress (Faith Alabi), Caitlin’s mother.
Fraser quickly drops off his things in his home and explores the base. He meets the outspoken Britney Orton (Francesca Scorcese) who brings him to the beach where he meets Caitlin. Their social group immediately shuns Fraser and he ends up drunkenly stumbling the streets of Italy on the outside looking in.
On the inside looking out is Caitlin. In the second episode of the series, Fraser’s arrival is depicted from her perspective. Viewers are given increased insight into her character, much more calm and restrained than Fraser. This stoicism appears as a symptom of her familial dynamic and its convolution. Her older brother, Danny (Spence Moore II), shuns drinking and lacks purpose in his life and her father, Lieutenant Richard Poythress (Scott Mescudi), is a traditional, Trump supporting soldier. Their family unit is locked in its ways, with conflicts bubbling under the surface, largely permeating throughout a powerful layer of subtext Guadagnino and his team inject into the series.
Fraser and Caitlin quickly form a friendship after their first encounters. Both struggle with their sexual identities, aiming to establish their respective preferences and the details of themselves that make up who they truly are. They are constantly pulled apart by external factors. These come in the form of overbearing and misdirected parenting, social pressures and discriminatory attitudes from friends, and circumstantial situations. Their bond, though, remains unbroken no matter how tried it becomes throughout the 8 episodes.
Guadagnino’s power in We Are Who We Are lays in his ability to sit and let situations fester. The camera is often still, allowing viewers an unfiltered glimpse into the moments and experiences of each character. The visuals are often slowed, blurred in a languid fashion to reflect the overpowering thoughts that flood the minds of Caitlin, Fraser and the other members of the cast.
While the lead duo are certainly compelling enough to maintain viewer interest, Guadagnino and his team of writers fully realize the world around these characters through the densely populated cast of characters. They are able to explore the themes of grief, mortality and discrimination from the lens of multiple ages and points on the political spectrum.
Grief is explored most prominently in the penultimate episode of the series, with a substantial character meeting their abrupt end. The longest episode of the series, “Right Here Right Now #7” allots enough time to explore how the death impacts each character individually.
What’s so profound about the episode is Guadagnino’s mastery of character. Each character has been meticulously developed by this point in the series, making their reactions are easy to understand and unpack because viewers have already gotten to know these individuals and their motivations, attitudes, and personalities. Its an incredible moment in a series filled with profundity.
We Are Who We Are is seeped in a realism few filmmakers accomplish. It feels less of a narrative than a multi-perspective character study. It feels both wholly American and other worldly, but always human. Perhaps in its empathetic application of character depth, the series accomplishes what it sets out to do; to tell a story of the never finished, always evolving pursuit of identity in the context of one’s environment.
Anchored by the beautifully complex relationship between two queer teenagers, We Are Who We Are is another homerun from HBO this year.