In the third episode of “We Are Who We Are,” Luca Guadagnino’s living teen travelogue, two young high schoolers lay face up in a canoe. Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) is reading a book of poetry, and his new friend Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón) asks him why — when you’re an American living abroad, laying under the warm Italian sun, floating mere inches from cool water, why spend your time reading poetry?
“The same reason I hate your clothing,” Fraser snaps back, referencing his designer t-shirts and her sporty apparel. “It’s fast fashion. [With my clothing,] I’m looking for something that means something. It’s the same with poetry. Every word means something.”
The same can be said for every word, shot, and sequence that makes up the unique yet universal HBO series “We Are Who We Are,” including this scene. The conversation is timeless — who hasn’t questioned a snobby friend about their high-minded choices? — but the framework is present and pressing. Fraser doesn’t mince words with Caitlin, and Caitlin doesn’t punish him for being frank. They’re honestly trying to understand the other person; not what Fraser gleans from the poems themselves, but something fundamental about who he’s become at this point in his short life. When she presses him further, he defends his choices by relating her “fast fashion” to “fast feelings” — both are meaningless, and he’s not interested in either one when it comes to her.
Directed and co-written by Guadagnino, “We Are Who We Are” isn’t so much a coming-of-age story as a celebration-of-age story; at the end of America’s lost summer, it’s a deeply felt recognition of teenage vitality, capturing and honoring the symphony of emotions that make so many of these youthful moments feel monumental. Some such moments are heavy and hard, but Guadagnino balances them with a bevy of joyful, blissful, and endearing experiences to make the first four episodes go by in the blink of an eye. Like those perfect summer days, “We Are Who We Are” only makes you crave more.
That may not be instantly clear in the opening episode, which focuses on Fraser and his family’s arrival at an army base in Italy. The son of a colonel named Sarah (Chloë Sevigny), who’s married to Maggie, a military physician, Fraser is rebellious to his mothers’ disciplined way of life in every respect. His hair is long, scraggly, and bleached blond; his nails are painted yellow and black; his clothes are obnoxiously trendy, the kind of 2010s fashion that strives to look like it was dug out of a bargain bin when, in reality, “you don’t want to know” how much it cost (as Fraser tells inquisitive peers). Fraser’s put-upon attitude befits his unspoken privilege. Though Sarah is the new base commander, the money for his hip threads comes from her dad; Fraser contends he’s not rich because they don’t see grandpa very often, but he’s clearly been pampered over these first 14 years.
No matter how annoying these descriptors may sound, Guadagnino introduces compelling distinctions for his young protagonist quickly and with ferocity. When they get off the plane in the series’ opening minutes, Sarah and Maggie are trying to pin down where their son’s missing bag has landed, and he requests a drink to help counter his distraught state. Sarah gives him an airplane bottle of what appears to be vodka, and their boundary-breaking relationship only gets edgier from there. Their family dynamic isn’t interesting because of anyone’s sexuality; it’s captivating because of the intensity built into the mother and son’s shared dependency.
Then, in Episode 2, we meet Caitlin. She’s been at the base for some time already with her father, Richard (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi), her mother, Jenny (Faith Alabi), and brother, Danny (Spence Moore II). Caitlin spends most her time being the child her father wants her to be. She goes on early morning boat trips to sell fuel to locals and trains with him late at night, two boxers circling the punching bag. When she’s on her own, she says she’s often bored, even though she’s dating multiple people and zipping off to the beach with her many friends. It’s only when Fraser pushes his way into her life that she starts opening up.
After these two character spotlights, “We Are Who We Are” becomes a shared ensemble piece, spending time with Fraser, Caitlin, their tight-knit friend group, as well as their parents. But as topics swirl in and out of focus, the strong episodic structure remains. Tensions rise at the base with Sarah’s installation as the new commander (her first time with such responsibility). Run-up speeches and advertisements to the 2016 election blare from TVs, a further warning of looming disaster. Talk of suicide and sexual assault hovers around the kids’ excursions enough to pervade a few of their thoughts. Drinking is an all-too-regular activity for Fraser, especially, and his friends are often sneaking off for a few beverages, a quick hook up, or a 24-hour soiree. Nudity isn’t a big deal: Fraser wanders into a men’s shower on accident and no one says a word, while the high schoolers strip off their skivvies for a swim, a joke, or just because it’s really, really hot.
Sexuality is a pertinent theme, but it feels like an innocent exploration for these kids, rather than the fearful, dangerous world depicted in HBO’s other teen drama, “Euphoria.” There are firmly held beliefs that could stir up problems with disapproving parents, sure, but Guadagnino’s series offers insight into Gen Z teens without alienating (aka scaring the bejesus out of) anyone older (a la “Euphoria”). As the main group of kids learns more about each other, the audience learns more about them. Characters are built efficiently and naturally, as the writer-director (working alongside fellow screenwriters Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri) uses his intimate understanding of people to build a connection between his subjects and his viewers that’s as warm and welcoming as his beautiful sunbaked setting.
With half the episodes yet to be seen, “We Are Who We Are” could go in a lot of different directions, but it already feels bursting with life in the way great television often does. You want to live alongside these characters for as long as they’ll let you, and for as shrewdly as Guadagnino doles out key details, there’s nothing fast about this loving look at developing souls. Whether you want to read poetry or swim under the Italian sun, “We Are Who We Are” gives you everything you could hope for. Kick back and enjoy.
“We Are Who We Are” premieres Monday, September 14 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.